Twenty-five windmills in San Diego County that stand 20 stories tall began generating electricity this week, offering powerful evidence that Native American tribes are turning to the wind to rebuild their economies.
The Kumeyaay Wind project, with the ability to generate 50 megawatts, is 70 times larger than the next-largest wind project on tribal land. It sits on land leased by the 300-member Campo Band of Kumeyaay Indians off Interstate 8, about an hour east of San Diego and 18 miles north of the Mexican border.
The economies of many tribes depend on energy sales and leases of land to coal, oil, and natural gas companies. This takes a toll on tribal land and is often seen as necessary to keep money and jobs on reservations and to protect a fast disappearing way of life.
Lawrence Flowers, team leader of Wind Powering America, a U.S. Energy Department-sponsored group assisting tribes to develop wind farms, says it is natural for tribes to turn to the wind for help.
“Wind sits very nicely with the tribal spiritual and cultural values because it’s a resource that develops tribal economies,” Flowers said. “And it’s renewable so it’s not extracting from the land like coal or oil. You’re not taking something away.”
Up to 15,000 homes helped
The Kumeyaay tribe will reap royalties of the sale of electricity from the wind farm to San Diego Gas & Electric, but the amount was not disclosed by the utility. The farm is expected to power between 12,000 and 15,000 homes.
The tribe’s wind farm stands only a few hundred yards from the Golden Acorn Casino, which represents another revenue-producer for many Native American tribes.
The Hopi and Navajo tribes will each lose a large chunk of their annual revenue -- a third of it for the Hopis who have voted down casino gambling -- when one of the dirtiest power plants in America shuts down this weekend.
Both tribes are looking to wind power projects as a way to replace revenue lost from the extraction of coal from tribal land in Arizona, which fuels the 1,580-megawatt Mohave Power plant in Nevada.
30 tribes eye wind
While there are a handful of single-turbine windmills generating electricity on tribal land in North Dakota, South Dakota and Montana, the new California wind farm is the first with multiple turbines. And in Alaska, five wind-diesel projects are working and dozens more are planned.
“This is a big deal,” Flowers said.
“We work with more than 30 tribes in the continental United States to help them develop wind resources and help them understand ownership,” he added.
Among the projects in the pipeline are one for 80 megawatts on eight different reservations on Lakota Nation land in North Dakota and South Dakota, and the expansion of a 750-kilowatt project to 30 megawatts on South Dakota’s Rosebud Sioux Reservation.
The Rosebud plant, which opened in 2003, had been the largest project on Native American land before the Kumeyaay Wind project opened over the holiday weekend.
Wind power is not consistent. Wind must blow at least five miles per hour to make electricity. Even though the San Diego County plant is in one of the windiest parts of Southern California, it will not produce at capacity like natural gas, nuclear and coal-fired plants can.
Decade of fast growth
U.S. wind power generation capacity is about 9,200 megawatts, up from 6,700 megawatts a year ago, 2,500 megawatts five years ago and 1,500 megawatts in 1990, according to industry advocate American Wind Energy Association.
The Kumeyaay venture cost more than $80 million. Of that, $51 million came from global investment firm Babcock & Brown , which will own the project along with GE Energy Financial Services, a division of General Electric. (GE also owns NBC, which is a partner in MSNBC.)
The Kumeyaay project will help SDG&E, a subsidiary of Sempra Energy, meet a California requirement that power companies generate 20 percent of electricity from renewable sources by 2010.