A COUP for Clean Energy

The World Clean Energy Awards, announced in Basel, Switzerland, on June 15, recognize innovative, practical projects that move renewable energy and energy efficiency solutions into the mainstream. Developed by the independent transatlantic21 Association, the awards are intended to create benchmarks for clean energy in seven categories: construction; transport and mobility; products; services, trade, and marketing; finance and investment; policy and lawmaking; and NGOs and initiatives. The Worldwatch Institute was one of eight organizations invited to participate in the nomination and jury process. Eye on Earth has been running a weekly feature on each of the nine winners.

Potential installed wind power
Potential Installed Wind Power on Tribal Lands.

In Native American tradition, “counting coup” is an act of bravery whereby one combatant touches his enemy without injuring the enemy or himself. Intertribal COUP (Council On Utility Policy), a coalition that promotes wind power development on U.S. tribal lands, is therefore aptly named, according to the group’s president Patrick Spears, a Lower Brule Sioux. Providing clean energy for tribes and selling excess power to the regional and national grids is like “touching” the enemy—in this case, polluting emissions and poor energy policies—without causing harm. It is “in fact, gaining honor through the benefits of clean energy,” he says.

Since 1995, participating COUP tribes have committed to promoting large-scale wind power on reservations in the northern Great Plains region. Historically, six dams on the Missouri River have provided much of the power generation in this area, says Spears, but with the growth in the electrical load, the number of coal-fired power plants—and associated pollution—has increased. Because of low water levels from extended drought, the region is supplementing its traditional hydropower supply with purchases from the coal-fired plants. But this supplemental power should be met with Intertribal windpower instead, Spears says.

According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, tribal lands have the potential to provide more than 200 gigawatts of wind energy, enough to meet 25 percent of U.S. electricity demand. “Tribes have the vast wind resources to build sustainable renewable energy economies on reservations to provide jobs and energy for their young and growing populations,” notes Bob Gough, secretary of COUP and co-developer of the intertribal plan. He says tribes can help provide a “clean-energy recharge of the ‘National Renewable Energy Grid,’” his term for the federal power transmission system built off the dams throughout the U.S. West.

Intertribal COUP has flourished since it helped build the first large commercial-scale wind turbine project on the Lakota Sioux Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota in 2003. Two years ago, the coalition acquired, on behalf of its member tribes, a majority equity interest in NativeEnergy, the only tribally owned carbon offset company and the only company that helps fund clean energy projects on native and non-native lands. Intertribal COUP currently represents a dozen tribes, says Spears, and is expected to grow.

Harnessing wind power is a practice in line with Native American tradition, Spears notes. “We know that the wind has power,” he says. “It is recognized in our songs and ceremonies.” Through ceremony, the group asked permission from the Creator and Holy Nations before implementing its five-stage plan, which began with construction of the Rosebud project and aims to expand to 150 megawatts (MW) each of wind power on 20 reservations. This amounts to 3,000 MW, or 10 percent of the 30,000-MW goal set by the Western Governor’s Association for 2015. “We want to use the Four Winds to sustain our communities,” Spears observes.

Because of the fortitude required to implement a clean energy project in a national business and legal environment inhospitable to decentralized energy production, the Intertribal COUP project won the World Clean Energy Award for “Courage.” According to Spears, members of Intertribal COUP were both “honored and humbled” to be selected from more than 70 applicants worldwide for the award. He says the recognition has earned the group attention from both the U.S. federal government and tribal governments, as well as new private financing. He hopes this will facilitate further development of the wind project, including supporting the environmental assessments and interconnection studies needed to assess the impact of additional electricity on the grid.

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.