Santee Sioux Tribe investigating use of renewable energy

The Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe is exploring whether it wants to provide solar energy on its land, a vision that is causing the local power provider and the city initial concerns.

The tribe has talked with Minneapolis-based RA Power, a development company formerly called RA Solar, about solar energy systems.

No contracts have been signed, and the tribe has not made a decision on whether it will pursue a solar project, said Lacy End-Of-Horn, a lawyer with the tribe. “In an effort to utilize sustainable energy and to invest in the community, the Flandreau Santee Sioux Tribe is exploring options to develop renewable solar power to contribute to energy conservation efforts,” she said in a written statement.

The tribe is looking at whether a project would be economically feasible, she said. “The tribe also intends to work with its local partners, including the city of Flandreau and the state of South Dakota, and intends to build the project in compliance with applicable law.” If the project is implemented, it may provide electricity to tribal residences, business and government buildings, and any excess energy created would benefit the local community, End-Of-Horn said.

In contrast to city concerns and objections of the current power company, the project would be allowed under South Dakota law and the regulations of the state Public Utilities Commission, said Gary Gustafson, RA Power owner. The company can install equipment and let a local entity own it. “We build it. They own it,” he said of potential South Dakota work.

He has spoken to the state about the process that and the regulations, said Gustafson, a promoter of renewable energy. His company is in the early stages of development, as well.

“I’m really excited about the project. I hope the tribe does proceed with it,” he said. “I’m hopeful that we’ll be able to implement the solar energy program.”

But city lawyer Paul Lewis said if solar energy would be provided by a company, that could put Flandreau at risk with its provider Missouri River Energy Services. Power companies have assigned territories they serve in South Dakota, and an outside company can’t sell power at commercial rates, he said.

“There’s restrictions, barriers and challenges,” Lewis told council members. “It causes me more questions, but I think it’s worth our time.”

A letter from the energy company said if RA Power installs solar energy systems on tribal land, that would be in violation of Flandreau Municipal Utilities assigned service territory rights. Statues under law don’t bar utility customers from supplying their own power, but they don’t allow out-of-territory electric utilities from providing service, the letter from Derek Bertsch with the company’s legal department said.

Because a new service could take away the demand for his company’s utilities, customers might face higher rates, he said.

In other city business from the April 16 meeting,

  • The contractor on the First Avenue project wasn’t allowed to start construction to finish the project until approval was given by Clark Engineering. Engineers didn’t want work disrupting the ground until the weather was better.

Since the council meeting, the weather improved to the point where the contractor, H&W Contracting of Sioux Falls, was given permission to start work this week. They planned to start in an area from First Avenue to Community Drive, but work won’t interfere with school.

The project has a July deadline for completion.

  • City administrator Don Whitman met with representatives of DGR Engineering on phase four of the electrical improvements project which will be planned this year for construction in 2019. The council approved an engineering agreement with the company for $147.400.

The area that will be upgraded is along Industrial Avenue to Cenex and west to the power plant and an area north by the Flandreau Indian School, including tribal housing. That area will get new lines because the old buried lines are outdated and residents have been experiencing power outages, Whitman said.

The project is expected to cost $1.2 million.

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