by David Melmer
One of the largest 'ifs' - is whether enough turbines are available
DENVER - A most unlikely partnership between tribes and cities may be in the offing, and the connection could go a long way toward saving the environment by providing clean and renewable energy.
A Native Renewable Energy Summit was held in Denver Nov. 15 - 17 to brainstorm for ways in which the cities and tribes can partner to achieve their individual goals. The summit was designed to bring ideas to the table that could develop into workable plans for tribes and cities to work together to move toward a cleaner environment while overcoming pitfalls and generating economic opportunities.
Tribes - especially those in the northern Great Plains - want to develop clean, economically sustainable energy sources; and they have great wind resources available throughout most of their tribal lands.
The many cities that have pledged to reduce their dependence on carbon-producing power share a common ground with the tribes. Tribes could lead the way by showing their commitment to clean air and water, and creating the potential to expand the distribution of power.
A plan is on the table to build wind turbines on nearly all of the Plains reservations to provide the power they and nearby communities need.
The marriage of a clean environment and economic development may not be easily created, yet the obvious barriers seem to be few.
Mayors from 180 cities across the country have signed on to an agreement to protect the climate and agreed to participate in the principles of the Kyoto Protocol, even though the federal government is not a party to that international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions worldwide.
So far, three cities - Boulder, Colo., Aspen, Colo. and Seattle - have agreed to explore possible partnerships with the tribes. Those cities' mayors participated in a conclave in Denver with tribal leaders from all corners of the country.
''The cities are desirous of taking positive action. Since the United States has not participated in the Kyoto Protocol, the cities are taking the initiative,'' said Robert Gough, secretary of the Intertribal Council on Utility Policy.
Boulder Mayor Mark Ruzzin said his city's residents want renewable energy used. ''And we are starting to see that all across the country.
''There is a grass-roots component with cities; and now we need to see if the states can move now, and then eventually get the federal government involved,'' Ruzzin said.
''This is very much an environmental and economic area worth tapping into. We are seeing wind as extremely viable. Wind is here and the sun is here: we need to tap into them for the future and change what the past has built upon.''
That's good news for the tribes. There is an estimated 17,000 times more wind on the northern Great Plains than would ever be utilized. But putting the package together may be difficult.
Questions remain about financing wind turbines, connecting to the grid, exploring what type of agreement tribes would have with federal power authorities and - one of the largest 'ifs' - whether enough turbines are available. As more countries take advantage of the wind to generate clean power, a worldwide shortage of turbines has developed.
Renewable energy use for power is growing in this country, especially locally. Ruzzin said Boulder set a goal of finding 500 customers who wanted to use renewable energy, and before the idea was formally made public the city had more than 1,000 subscribers.
Aspen has agreed to a zero-carbon footprint. That city uses power from the Western Area Power Administration, a federal agency, which normally would produce power from hydroelectric dams. But given the current drought conditions, hydropower is down and Aspen now receives 80 percent of its power from coal-generated facilities. Eventually, the tribes hope, the city could request WAPA add tribally generated power to the grid.
WAPA's extra power comes from the No. 1 producer of carbon dioxide in the country - Basin Electric Power Cooperative. Located in North Dakota, Basin Electric supplies most of the power for the Great Plains. Basin Electric burns lignite coal, one of the most polluting of fossil fuels used in electricity generation.
Beth Conover, director and special adviser of Denver's Sustainability Initiative office, said the city is very interested in reducing greenhouse gases and supports renewable energy sources.
The U.S. Conference of Mayors has endorsed a positive climate change, and most of the mayors have been contacted by ICOUP to begin dialogue toward that goal.
''There is a tremendous generation capacity on reservations; the idea is to find ways of getting power to those cities to reduce their carbon footprint. This would provide a chance for some of the poorest areas to provide a sustainable, low-carbon future,'' Gough said.
Most customers in the cities, when asked if they would be willing to pay a little more for power that was generated from renewable sources, said they would.
The market is there, the opportunities are there; but the logistics need to be worked out. That part appears to be the most difficult. Tribes may be in a better position than most cities or states when it comes to legal matters because of their sovereignty. The sovereignty of the tribes and their connection to the federal government may be the link to get power on the grid.
To become renewable-energy role models, tribes need to set an example. Some tribes have set environmental standards, but to be part of the clean, renewable energy movement they must also pass standards and rules and enforce them not just on their own lands, but on private and government-owned lands as well.
Legal precedent has been set in that area by the Isleta Pueblo of New Mexico against the city of Albuquerque. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld Isleta's right to force Albuquerque to abide by the Pueblo's standards with a wastewater treatment plant. The Pueblo demanded clean water, and the city was forced to build a new treatment plant to protect the water that flows into the Pueblo.
The new energy bill passed by Congress holds many opportunities for tribes, Gough said. Those opportunities may just be the openings needed for further discussion and partnering with other government entities to create a viable economic engine for tribes with renewable resources.
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