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Rosebud wind turbine, a showcase project for the Northern Plains

WASHINGTON - The Rosebud Sioux Tribe has a 750 kilowatt wind turbine up and running, the first payoff of an eight-year process that has given Indian country a model for wind power operations.

Robert Gough, a commissioner of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe Utility Commission and secretary of Intertribal COUP (for Council on Utility Policy), invited the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, members and staff alike, to the turbine's dedication on Rosebud in South Dakota May 1, but not before making the case for more tribal wind power projects and stating the potential for wind power.

Gough called the Rosebud turbine the first utility-scale commercial wind development in the lower 48 states wholly owned and operated by a tribe. Another 80 to 130 kilowatts of tribally generated wind power is within reach over the next year and a half, he added, but only with continued federal support for "green power" purchases and a commitment from tribes to the learning curve set forth at Rosebud over the course of eight years.

"As we learned with Rosebud, you cannot finance or build a commercial wind project without a sound business plan that includes good wind data, the necessary interconnection and long-term power purchase agreements. If you do not have accurate data for the resource, the documented desire in the market to purchase the power over a number of years, or a way to get your power to that market, you simply cannot get the financing to build the project."

The roster of partners on the Rosebud project gives some idea of the complexities that have been mastered here once, perhaps relieving future tribal projects of any need to re-invent every wheel among the many they will encounter. The Department of Energy and the Rural Utilities Service financed the project; DisGen Inc. did the engineering; local utilities, the Western Area Power Administration, and Ellsworth Air Force Base in Rapid City, S.D., provided the vital chain of power grid, transmission and guaranteed purchasing; and NativeEnergy Inc. arranged "green tag" sales with the government. Along the way, the project compiled any number of firsts - first DOE commercial tribal project, first tribally owned 750 kilowatt wind turbine, first Rural Utilities Service loan to a tribal wind power project, first tribal "green tag" power sales and first tribal "green power" sale to the Department of Defense.

So far so good - and the news here is very good. But without diminishing it in any way, the news must never be all good at a Senate hearing. And so that is the place to note that most of the optimistic estimates for wind power derive, at some distance or other, from the Department of Energy. Previous DOE wind power production estimates were wrong by 20,000 percent, a margin of error it may be striving to surpass with its currently reported view that Great Plains wind power can supply 75 percent of electricity demand in the continental United States.

If reservations in the wind-rich Northern Plains can offer a welcome mat, a commitment to tribally certified "green power" as a marketing instrument, maybe even an incentive or two drawn from tribal sovereignty to go with federal "green power" and "green tag" preferences - there is no reason limited wind power can't take up residence in Indian country under those circumstances. The Spirit Lake Sioux at Fort Totten and the Turtle Mountain Chippewa, both in North Dakota, as well as the Inupiat Alaska Native community in Kotzebue, and now the Sicangu people of the Rosebud, have found single wind towers or a cluster of 10 to be economical and largely trouble-free.

But limited wind power, while good for many purposes, isn't really the ultimate goal. The ultimate goal, the grand sweepstakes and the greatest risk, is grid-connected wind farms. These would be colonies of wind towers, numbering from at least 26 to upwards of 50 depending on wind velocity. They would produce from 50 to 200 megawatts of power, producing enough kilowatt-hours to light up small cities or large metropolitan areas - but only if the electricity so produced can be sold and transmitted, as Gough noted in the context of the hearing.

Transmission must take place through high-voltage wires connecting the wind farm substation to the so-called national grid of transmission wires that carry electricity between utilities in a process known as "wheeling." The wheeling of wind power itself requires careful integration at a minimum; it may also call for the upgrading of long-distance transmission wire. Once wind-generated electricity is transferred, utilities then distribute power to households, businesses and other sites in their service area. But before any of that can happen, a utility must agree in writing to buy power at a set price for a specified period, usually a period of years.

With smooth operations at every point from installation to distribution, a wind farm might return millions of dollars annually to a tribe throughout its 10 to 30 years of operation. But because wind is the most renewable energy source going and operating and maintenance costs are low, the life expectancy of a wind farm can be readily extended.

Wind power is also the cleanest of energy resources, using no fossil fuels in its own generation process and promising to displace 18 percent of excess emissions in the utilities sector by 2010. This potential for mitigating greenhouse effect and drawing back from the propensity of fossil fuels toward global warming is one of wind power's most salient selling points.

Another, now, is that a model has been established at Rosebud for other tribes to follow with relative ease.

Photographs of the turbine can be viewed on the Internet at www.rosebudsiouxtribe.org.