Posted by on Jan 9, 2011 in Uncategorized

Energy Self-Sufficiency and a Compelling Response to Global Warming

Carrie La Seur

Energy Self-Sufficiency and a Compelling Response to Global Warming:
First Steps with the Sicangu Lakota Oyate and Cherry-Todd Electric Cooperative

Carrie La SeurBy: Carrie La Seur, Plains Justice President & Founder

For the last few years, new efforts have been radiating outward from Indian country to develop energy policies that will better serve our communities and our descendants. I was privileged to be involved in one recent initiative in South Dakota. In the summer of 2009, leaders from the Intertribal Council on Utility Policy (COUP)(http://www.intertribalcoup.org/), invited representatives from Dakota Resource Council, Dakota Rural Action, and Plains Justice (http://plainsjustice.org/) for a full day meeting on energy issues at Sinte Gleska University (http://www.sintegleska.edu/) in Mission, South Dakota. University President Lionel R. Bordeaux graciously welcomed the participants, who viewed an exciting joint project with COUP in progress: the construction of a new, highly efficient strawbale building that would house a bison husbandry program.

The topic was how to improve the energy performance of building stock belonging to the Sicangu Lakota Oyate, and how to work more effectively with the rural electric cooperative that serves the Rosebud reservation, Cherry Todd Electric Co-op. More than 8% of the co-op’s members are seriously behind on their bills, so controlling energy costs is one of the highest priorities. But we had bigger goals: low-impact, environmentally sustainable energy self-sufficience that will bring permanent economic benefits to the people.

What may sound like ho-hum conservation and energy policy efforts are at the heart of indigenous leadership in the fight against global warming in the northern plains states while protecting families that struggle to pay ever-escalating utility bills. The Dakotas remain heavily dependent on greenhouse gas-intensive coal-fired power plants, while up to 90 cents of every dollar Tribes spend on energy disappears from the community forever. This transfer of wealth away from the Tribes to polluting energy companies is bad for the people and bad for the planet.

COUP has worked for years to expand tribal ownership of renewable energy infrastructure, including the utility scale wind turbine at the Rosebud casino. The resource council representatives have similar goals, to expand local clean energy investment and reduce energy consumption to save precious energy dollars and reduce environmental damage. Plains Justice is a nonprofit energy and environmental law center, based in Billings. We run an outreach to rural electric cooperatives called Clean Energy Ambassadors (http://cleanenergyambassadors.ning.com/). Our role at Rosebud was to help facilitate better cooperation with the local utility.

Cherry Todd Electric Cooperative is headquartered in Mission, SD, and serves about 6,000 members in a very rural service territory. In 70 years serving a roughly 80% indigenous membership, the co-op had never had an enrolled tribal member on its elected board of directors. The co-op is in effect a tribally owned utility, because of its majority tribal membership, but the tribe hadn’t exercised its ownership muscle. One of the first action items that developed from the 2009 meeting was to recruit Lakota candidates for the upcoming board election. Rod Bordeaux and Whitney Meeks stepped forward and were elected, a historical integration of which we were all proud. Now to the hard part of improving utility programming.

Cherry Todd General Manager Tim Grablander and his staff were receptive to developing better ways to bring energy efficiency and conservation programming to the reservation community, with the central goal of lowering bills. A recent graduate of the United Tribes Technical College in Bismarck, Leo Campbell, was hired by the Tribal Housing Authority and offered his services to help identify and fix housing energy problems.

Clean Energy Ambassadors consultant Jill Cliburn returned to South Dakota in the fall of 2010 to help Cherry Todd develop new efficiency programming options. The co-op was about to install new electronic meters, which allow automatic meter reading and support “load control” on water heaters. This means that when the utility is experiencing heavy demand for power, like on the coldest days of winter, it can remotely slow down the rate at which electric water heaters turn on, to avoid having to purchase more expensive “peak” power off the grid. This keeps everybody’s rates down by reducing the total cost of power. Eventually, those new meters could support other types of load control and provide more detailed information on member energy use.

Cliburn’s presentation offered proven, low-cost program options that can help co-op and tribal members save 5 to 25 percent on energy bills. In the year since the first meeting at Sinte Gleska and the election of Bordeaux and Meeks to the board, Grablander reported seeing more signs of positive changes than he had for a long time, and many tribal members agreed. The co-op had also begun to build stronger communications with the Tribal Energy Commission, Sinte Gleska University, the Tribal Housing Authority, energy assistance program, and regional development program.

But the most important progress that we hope to see from this work is increased awareness of the importance of clean energy as a viable source of economic development in windy South Dakota, and as a pathway for increased indigenous leadership in the fight against global warming. Plains Justice and Clean Energy Ambassadors staff continue to seek opportunities to expand our outreach to rural electric cooperatives serving tribal lands, and taste more wojapi. Pilàmaya ye to our generous hosts!