Tribes are holding a winning hand

Many of Oklahoma's 39 Native American tribes are exploring the possibility of using renewable energy to provide power on reservations. Development is most likely in central, northern and western parts of the state where the wind is stronger.

Oklahoma City: Infrastructure requiring electricity includes administrative offices, casinos, health and hospital facilities, living quarters, recreational areas and stores.

Of these, the biggest power users could be the 92 casinos operated by 33 of the tribes, which raked in $105.6m in the 2008-2009 financial year, up from $81.4m the year before, according to the Oklahoma Office of State Finance. Some of the casinos operate thousands of slot machines and other gaming devices at large resorts, running up huge electricity bills. These and other power needs could be met with small turbines in regions with a wind resource. Several tribes are looking at two 600-kilowatt turbines per casino, Jerry Garroutte, vice-president of sales for Wind Turbine & Solar Energy tells Recharge . The company, which is owned by Native Americans, is based in Muskogee, eastern Oklahoma.

Approval by Congress this year of a 30% federal tax credit for installation of small wind systems - the first specifically for wind since 1985 - could add a financial incentive for tribes to embrace renewable energy, tribal officials say.

At least six tribes are looking at allowing utility-scale wind turbines and transmission lines on reservations. This is a potentially controversial move, given traditional Native American reverence for the natural beauty of the land.

Other possible issues include encroachment on burial grounds and archaeological sites, and interference with hunting grounds, Chermac Energy president Jaime McAlpine, an Osage tribal member, told a Native American symposium in June.

The tribes considering the scheme include the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, the Iowa Nation of Oklahoma, the Kaw Nation, the Otoe-Missouria Tribe, the Ponca Nation and the Tonkawa Tribe. Garroutte says turbines of up to 2.4 megawatts each are under consideration, and preliminary discussions have been held with potential suppliers. One plan under review would site 20 turbines on each tribe's land, with the power sold to utilities.

The Cherokee Nation and the city of Tulsa are looking at forming a wind-energy partnership, possibly with the Public Service Company of Oklahoma - the largest distributor of wind power in the state. The tribe owns land near Newkirk, northern Oklahoma, and could send wind power southeast to Tulsa.

In most cases, however, it is not the tribes but the individual tribal members who own reservation land. A consensus, therefore, must be reached among the private landowners, as well as having the tribe's blessing, before large tracts can be utilised for wind power.