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Indigenous-Led Dakota Wind Project Holds Lessons for Just Transition

With some of the windiest places on the continent sited within their territories, six Oceti Sakowin (Lakota) tribes in South Dakota are three years into development of a major wind power project. And with the project well under way, the community has much to teach about achieving a just energy transition. 

“After enduring the plights of colonial-settlerism, broken treaties, acts of genocide, and mass dispossession of land, the Oceti Sakowin ultimately were forced onto reservations specifically identified as resource-barren and unfit for farming or homesteading,” writes GreenBiz. But while the community now stewards a mere 2% of its original territory, those 3.2 million acres (1.3 million hectares) have proven to be in high demand. 

Determined to develop their wind power potential on their own terms, the Cheyenne River, Flandreau Santee, Oglala, Rosebud, Standing Rock, and Yankton tribes came together in 2015 to form the Oceti Sakowin Power Authority (OSPA). In 2018, OSPA partnered with wind developer Apex Clean Energy to develop a potential 1 GW of wind power.

Phase 1, which will see 570 MW completed by 2024, “can be considered a valuable model for how clean energy buyers, developers, and front-line communities can benefit from these resources and address social and environmental justice issues simultaneously—all through utility-scale renewable energy development,” GreenBiz writes. 

The fact that the project stands in South Dakota, a state infamous for environmental racism against Indigenous Peoples—most notably, in recent years, at Standing Rock—only highlights the need for “a fair and inclusive, clean economy,” says GreenBiz.

“This is where the partnership between Apex and OSPA is emerging as a valuable model for how large-scale renewable energy projects can be framed to meet the criteria for a just transition.”

The project is structured as a joint venture, with the OSPA team setting the foundational terms: “true project ownership, complete transparency into the process, the ability to make decisions, and to engage with a partner that respected their cultural beliefs and protocols.”

OSPA’s majority share in the project (51%) means the venture “is set up to render long-term economic benefits to local tribal communities that comprise some of the poorest and underserved counties in the U.S.” 

In Oglala Lakota County, which will be home to a 120-MW phase of the project, “per capita income is around US$8,768 and unemployment is in the 80% range.” The OSPA wants as many as possible of the anticipated 450 construction jobs associated with the project to be sourced locally, “and the partners acknowledge the need for a tailored training strategy,” as well.  

Apex also estimates the construction period “could bring in $20 million in tax and fee revenue for the tribes,” with further revenue from leases “estimated in the millions.” 

As for how the community has reacted to the wind power project, OSPA project manager Caroline Herron said, “the biggest community feedback is pride.”