Tribes explore energy alternatives

Michigan tribes have a potential for wind energy and wood-based biomass, said Roger Taylor, the principal project manager of the tribal energy program at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado. The laboratory is the nation's primary research and development institute for renewable energy and energy efficiency at the U.S. Department of Energy.

Many tribes have done wind energy feasibility studies because it is the most cost-effective energy source, said John Sarver, former manager of renewable energy at the Bureau of Energy.

For example, Sonya Zotigh, a grant writer at the Economic Development Corp. of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians, said her tribe did a study two years ago and found a piece of its property in Grand Traverse County with enough wind to sustain six turbines. The Little River Band of Ottawa Indians in Manistee has found two locations suitable for wind energy, including Manistee High School.

Among others conducting similar studies are the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians and the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community.

"We want to be ecologically minded when it comes to our development," Zotigh said.

Frank Ettawageshik, executive director of the United Tribes of Michigan and the former chair of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, said tribes are close to the environment and vulnerable to environmental degradation.

For example, Ettawageshik said, burning coal releases mercury into the environment, which can contaminate water and fish.

"We consume a lot of fish," he said, and therefore, the tribe would feel the adverse effects of contamination first.

Tribal lands cover about 5 percent of the U.S. and hold an estimated 10 percent of the country's renewable energy resources, according to the National Wildlife Federation.

Its study shows tribes are bearing the brunt of climate change. For example, tribes of the Great Lakes have reported diminishing elk and moose herds, as climate change forces animals north to colder habitats.

The burning of fossil fuels for transportation, power and industry advances climate change, also known as global warming, scientists say. Don Seal, a community engineer at the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe, said renewable energy helps his tribe offset the carbon footprint of fossil fuels.

The tribe did a wind study in 2004 and will install its first wind turbine by the end of this year, he said. The 300-kilowatt turbine will power its greenhouse and homes.

Tribes also are considering other renewable energy sources, such as biomass and solar.

But most tribes face financing problems that hinder alternative energy development.

The federal Tribal Energy Program awards grants to study renewable energy possibilities.

In the past nine years, six of its 129 grant-supported projects were in Michigan, Taylor of the laboratory said.

Seal said one grant covered about 30 percent of the cost of the Saginaw Chippewa tribe's wind project.

Meanwhile, tribes can't take advantage of federal tax incentives for renewable energy projects because they aren't taxable entities, Taylor said.

The state doesn't offer much financial help, either.

Sarver said the state runs outreach and education programs in renewable energy and sometimes awards small grants for demonstration projects.

"We focus on technical advice and assistance," Sarver said.

Therefore, tribes must seek financial resources by themselves.

Some get money from casino revenues, but most look for money elsewhere, such as tax benefits for commercial projects, Taylor said.

He said it's more cost effective for Michigan tribes to save energy by improving energy efficiency, such as home weatherization, because of the cold climate.

The Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians has an energy efficiency program at its Turtle Creek Casino and Hotel in Williamsburg.

Zotigh said its eco-friendly features include skylights and high-efficiency LED lighting, a 2,400-square-foot green roof and recycling.