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Tribes want policies to help them aid nation’s hydropower needs

Tribes want policies to help them aid nation’s hydropower needs

Rob Capriccioso Indian Country March 24, 2009

< Secretary of Energy Steven Chu addressed the NCAI winter conference, during which he promised to fully empower a tribal office in the energy department and to hold a summit this year on energy issues that affect Indian country.

WASHINGTON – A group of tribal energy experts has asked the Obama administration to consider specific incentives to help tribes play a substantial role in beefing up the nation’s hydropower infrastructure.

In early March, the Intertribal Council on Utility Policy sent a letter to Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu suggesting ways tribes with wind energy resources can supplement current hydropower resources. The group is a nonprofit organization that addresses energy, telecommunications and environmental issues affecting member tribes in North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Wyoming.

At a recent meeting of the National Congress of American Indians, Chu promised to fully empower a tribal office in the energy department and to hold a summit this year on energy issues that affect Indian country. He also said he supports energy tax production credits for tribes.

The letter highlights issues and makes requests that seem to align with Chu’s pledges.

“Tribal renewable energy, such as the hundreds of megawatts of wind power awaiting development in the northern Great Plains, can make a significant difference in augmenting federal hydropower diminished by the current decade long drought, since wind neither consumes water as conventional power cooling plants do, nor does it add green house gases to the atmosphere contributing to the loss of snow pack,” the letter noted.

The letter added that Western Area Power Administration, and to some extent the Bonneville Power Administration and Tennessee Valley Authority, are running out of water to provide power. The three groups are regional power marketing administrations within the energy department.

The authors of the letter said, too, that under present policies and practices, WAPA is running an increasing public debt by buying retail coal power.

Officials with Intertribal COUP said the Department of Energy could encourage the use of tribal wind power with a demonstration project for the purchase of federal supplemental power by establishing a federal “feed-in tariff” that would:
• Facilitate the integration of large scale distributed wind interconnected on the WAPA grid;
• Eliminate the need for non-Indian ownership of reservation projects, which is presently required under federal production tax credit incentives;
• Provide capacity value to wind power, and;
• Address the environmental justice issues created by the historic build out of the federal dam system where the federal reservoirs permanently flooded the Indian reservations in the Dakotas to provide flood control protection to downstream non-Indian communities.

Bob Gough, a leader with Intertribal COUP, said he’d also like to see Chu address cost concerns raised in a recent WAPA draft report on the study of wind and hydropower feasibility.

Citing cost, the report suggests a limit to WAPA’s purchase of tribal wind power to only one tribal project site, which Gough said misses the opportunity for the full benefit of one large, distributed project built across 20 reservations in six upper Great Plains states.

Intertribal COUP leaders said Chu knows all too well that water resources, especially in the West, are dwindling, and fast action is needed.

In an article entitled “The Future is Drying Up” published in 2007, Chu noted that even the most optimistic climate models for the second half of this century suggest that 30 to 70 percent of snowpack will disappear. The estimates indicate that water resources will be highly limited.

“There’s a two-thirds chance there will be a disaster,” Chu wrote in the article, “and that’s in the best scenario.”

Tribal energy experts said wind and solar power from reservations provides safe and relatively easy solutions to at least some of the problem.

“Secretary Chu, you are now in a position to make a sustainable difference in federal policy within the federal family by supporting the development of significant renewable energy resources in partnership with Indian tribes across the country through the creative policies, such as feed-in renewable energy tariffs, for the federal power marketing administrations, such as WAPA, BPA and TVA,” the letter stated.

“This initiative has significant implications for water, energy, national security, environmental justice, carbon emission reduction, climate change and tribal economic development, and we look to you for leadership.”

Chu has not yet responded to the letter, nor to requests for comment on it. Gough said, though, that the secretary seemed aware of the options outlined in the letter during a recent meeting with tribal leaders in Washington.

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