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Reservations are rich with wind. It’s just a matter of harnessing the potential energy.

Native lands have the potential to generate more than 22 percent of America’s electricity through wind energy alone, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. And residents of South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation—the “Saudi Arabia of wind,” as Lakota environmental activist Debra White Plume calls it—are taking steps to make their share a reality.

“It’s huge, the wind potential,” said Pat Spears, president of the Intertribal Council on Utility Policy. “We can safely say a fourth of the nation’s energy can be met with wind resource development on tribal lands alone. Enron estimates half of this country’s electric load could be met by wind. We just have the best of the best, you know, on tribal lands.”

Those advocating wind energy development on Pine Ridge have kept a close eye on the 64-kilowatt wind turbine already functioning at the reservation’s radio station, KILI-FM. Donated in June 2008 by Honor the Earth, a non-profit organization that raises and directs funds to Native environmental groups, the KILI wind turbine is still an experiment.

Despite its social buzz, the turbine—originally estimated to cut the radio station’s $1,800 monthly electricity budget by 67 percent—has “had its problems,” according to 61-year-old Tom Casey, KILI-FM’s business manager and development director. A blizzard last November froze energy production. Fully functioning by February, the turbine stopped again in June. A crane lowered the turbine and shipped it back to its California origins, where the transmission was fixed once again. Although shipped back to KILI, the turbine has not yet been reinstalled. The control board is now problematic.

“Despite our frustration at getting it up and going, there has definitely been a lot of interest,” Casey said. “A local school has used our anemometer to test wind on their land, and the college, too.

“Once it’s fixed we’re hoping it’ll run for 20 years. Whether it covers two-thirds of our electricity we’ll have to see.”

Members of the Oglala Lakota Sioux on Pine Ridge have been researching the reservation’s wind energy potential for years. They’re now working with local economic development committees and renewable energy experts like Pat Spears to make sense of the studies and bring the process to fruition.

“One hundred years of servitude and being regulated to death and finally we have among us educated people who recognize that we have all these capabilities in our own rank and file,” said Loretta Cook, public relations director for the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

Studies conducted by the Intertribal COUP and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory show more than 276,000 megawatts of wind energy in the Dakotas on tribal lands alone, according to Spears, a member of the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe. The OST is one of only two tribes out of eight, however, to reject plans by the Intertribal COUP to establish a 50-megawatt wind farm on their reservation. Although proposals have been sent through OST committees, a final resolution has never made it to the council floor.

“There are a lot of folks that aren’t on the same page and at the level of understanding that it takes to make good, informed decisions,” Spears said. “That’s what happens when you have turnover. Every two years there’s a new council and it’s just part of what we deal with in development of any project on reservations for that matter.”

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Although the reservation’s grid system can handle only a limited electricity output and the market for its output is relatively small, Spears noted Pine Ridge also has nearby rural energy cooperatives that many other tribes cannot access. These co-ops “might be useful for large land-based tribes with dispersed populations, but perhaps more importantly, it could be tailored for a region where a number of tribes exist, but each tribe individually is too small to consider utility formation by itself,” according to the U.S. Dept. of Energy Web site.

The Oglala Sioux Tribe is reviewing current offers from a number of wind development groups. Although OST has yet to accept any offers, hope for wind energy lingers.

“The buffalo is in front of us, you know, the buffalo that we used for everything,” Cook said.

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