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Native American Interview: Pat Spears, Intertribal Council On Utility Policy (COUP)

Pat Spears

Pat Spears, Intertribal Council On Utility Policy (COUP)

Native American Interview: Pat Spears, Intertribal Council On Utility Policy (COUP)

Date: 8/1/2004

Tell us a little about Intertribal COUP.

A. Intertribal COUP was formed in 1994 to provide a forum for utility issues discussion from regulatory and economic perspectives. The Intertribal COUP Council has representatives from nine Tribes located in a three-state area in the Northern Plains: South Dakota, North Dakota, and Nebraska. The Tribes include the Cheyenne River; Flandreau Santee; Lower Brule; Mandan, Hidatsa, and Arikara; Omaha; Rosebud; Sisseton; Spirit Lake; and the Standing Rock Sioux Tribes. The Cheyenne River Sioux Tribal Telephone Authority is also a member.

We provide policy analysis and recommendations, as well as workshops on telecommunications, climate change research, Western Area Power Administration (WAPA) hydropower allocations, energy efficiency, energy planning, and renewable energy, with a heavy emphasis on wind energy development.

Q. Why is Intertribal COUP interested in wind energy?

A. The Tribes in the Northern Plains have a huge wind resource, one of the best on the planet. It has the potential to provide clean renewable energy for Tribal use and sustainable economic development, as well as for export to large population centers in the Western and Midwestern regions. Wind energy from Tribal lands alone can meet at least one-third of the nation's energy needs. Wind energy has the greatest potential to restore our economies. With more than half of our population under the age of 20, wind energy development can provide skilled technical employment for our youth.

Q. What is Intertribal COUP'S vision for wind energy development?

A. We envision every Tribe in the Northern Plains developing wind energy to power our homes, Tribal and community buildings, and industries and providing clean, inexhaustible energy to the growing regional and national markets.

The Federal energy transmission system operated by WAPA across the Northern Plains once carried 100% hydropower. Now only about 20% of the electricity carried by the system comes from hydropower; the remainder is from fossil fuel sources. Our vision includes the return of renewable energy to this grid, providing both wind and hydropower to the western states and potentially into the eastern grid as well. We believe the system should be restored to at least a 50% renewable energy capacity, with the additional 30% coming from Tribal wind energy.

Q. How is Intertribal COUP moving wind energy development forward in Indian Country?

A. Along with providing policy recommendations for renewable energy development in regional and national forums, we are developing an 80-megawatt (MW) Intertribal Wind Energy Project on six reservations. This project has been selected as an Environmental Justice Community Revitalization Project by a fifteen-member Interagency Working Group.

Tell us about the $1 million appropriation from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

Intertribal COUP received this appropriation to complete the feasibility and pre-development costs for the 80-MW Intertribal Wind Energy Project. This project unites six Tribes that have either received DOE grants or contributed Tribal funds to conduct feasibility studies for wind projects. This pooling of resources in one project allows for cost savings and the benefits of a unified approach to local and federal markets.

We plan to develop 10-MW projects on each reservation to serve local markets and/or WAPA power purchase contracts. The projects will be owned by each Tribe but marketed and managed under an Intertribal business structure.

Q. What current constraints/issues (inside and outside Indian Country) must be resolved for Intertribal COUP'S vision to be realized?

A. Some significant policy issues need to be resolved prior to wind powering the reservations or accessing federal and private markets in the region. The majority of the Tribes receive energy as members of the rural electric cooperatives, which in turn, own Basin Electric and its generation plants in the Northern Plains. As it stands now, there will be high demand charges and increased costs to continue to receive firming power when the wind is not blowing. We are hopeful that agreements can be reached among the rural electric cooperatives, Basin Electric, and the Tribes to partner on wind energy development for the great economic potential and the environmental benefits for the region and the earth.

Another critical policy issue is the purchase of supplemental power by WAPA to meet 20-year contractual obligations for hydropower to the utilities, which include rural electric cooperatives, cities, and Tribes. We have watched this annual expenditure grow from $20 million to more than $200 million over the past 10 years due to less precipitation and the Missouri River's low water levels. Intertribal COUP believes it makes good economic sense and better environmental sense to purchase wind energy from the Tribes to meet this changing need. After all, the Tribes have contributed more than anyone else to the construction of the Missouri River reservoir and transmission system and continue to contribute to the provision of low-cost hydropower for the benefit of all on the system.

Enough laws are in place, including our treaties authorized under the U. S. Constitution and the Buy Indian Act in place since the 1920s, to authorize the federal purchase of Tribal wind energy. Now our federal treaty partners need to follow through.

The proposed Energy Bill contains some interesting legislative elements that address Native American wind. Tell us about them and where they stand.

A. The proposed Energy Bill has changed a number of times over the past several years. Intertribal COUP, as part of the Intertribal Energy Network, contributed a number of recommendations in support of renewable energy development. The Senate Bill contained the most specific benefits for Tribes, including federal finance authority for $20 million annually for Tribal energy projects. Intertribal COUP provided language to support a federal facility renewable energy standard of 20%, with at least 10% of that set aside for Tribal projects, and a transferable Production Tax Credit that would give Tribal projects the same ability to attract private financing as non-Tribal projects across the reservation line. We were able to get this language into the bill that the conference committee on the Tax Bill has under consideration.

This information was last updated on August 02, 2011