The Tribal Energy Program website is moving!

Content is not being updated during this brief transition.

For the latest information about funding opportunities, technical assistance, and training for tribes, please visit the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Indian Energy website

Blackfeet Tribe - 1995 Project

Project Overview
Tribe/Awardee: Blackfeet Tribe
Location: Browning, MT
Project Title: Small-Scale Utility Grade Wind Turbine Demonstration (1995-1998)
Type of Application: Deployment
DOE Grant Number: DE-FG48-95R810567
Project Amounts:
DOE: $152,865
Awardee: $86,053
Total: $238,918
Project Status: Complete  More
Project Period
of Performance:
Start: September 1995
End: May 1998

Project Description


On May 19, 1996, a utility-scale wind turbine generating facility was put "on-line" on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Browning, Mont. The United States Department of Energy (DOE), the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council, the Blackfeet Community College (BCC), Glacier Electric Cooperative (GEC), Zond Systems, Inc., and educators from Montana State University teamed up to make possible this meaningful step in the development of renewable energy on Indian lands. The wind turbine facility provides power to offset the college's electric costs, through an arrangement with Glacier Electric Cooperative of Cut Bank, Mont.

For more than a decade, scientists, economists, and government officials have been measuring and evaluating the strong flows of wind down from the Rocky Mountain Front and across the plains of the Blackfeet Reservation. The ultimate potential has been estimated to be up to 3,900 mW. The limitations on transmission and the remoteness of the area have limited activity so far to "talk," but now leaders have taken "action" to demonstrate the potential and bring to bear necessary resources to find answers to the questions about larger scale development in the coming years.

The turbine site is easily visible to the inhabitants of the reservation community and to travelers passing through Browning on the way to Glacier National Park. The advantages of the location are to stimulate public consideration of the issues of foremost consideration in the future development of wind power on the reservation. It also symbolizes the possibilities available to business people, planners, tribal leaders, educators, and young people preparing to embark on their careers.

The project partners, mentioned above, represent a broad base of experience and interests ranging from education of the local public to state-of-the-art engineering research in airfoil materials design, as well as business development specialists and utility grid operators. The project provides a forum in which these varied and important issues can be explored to promote a cohesive and integrated experience base for future development.

This project has allowed local environmental workers to closely observe and record the impact of the turbine to the site-specific and reservation-wide bird behavioral patterns. There has been no incident of any bird being hurt or killed in the turbine blades, tower or the surrounding site over the entire period of operation of the turbine.

The 181,824 kWh of energy produced by the demonstration wind turbine offset the Blackfeet Community College's electric usage almost completely for the one-year period of the project. The power was purchased by GEC at a rate of $0.027/kWh, which is approximately half the retail price of energy in GEC territory. The monthly power production sales were credited against the college's costs on a monthly basis reducing Blackfeet Community College's annual electric cost by $4,909.25. Comparisons between the predicted power output and the actual power output give a rough project efficiency value of 88%.

A future work proposal has been submitted to the Blackfeet Tribe, to create a Tribal energy corporation, where the turbine would be the first generating asset. There was a fair amount of discussion with the 1996-1998 council and the majority of the council members, as well the legal, economic development and planning departments, and all were in favor of moving ahead with the proposal. At present, the future development steps are undetermined.

Goals and Objectives

The Blackfeet demonstration wind turbine project has met or surpassed its proposed goals, in terms of feasibility, education, and stimulation of local interest in wind energy. The project's main accomplishment has been to provide a highly visible and positive example of progressive development and, consequently, a sense of hope and enthusiasm to many members of the reservation community.

Project Actions and Resultant Data


On May l9, 1996, a single VESTAS V-17 turbine was put on line through an inter-connect with GEC's distribution line, at a site approximately 1 mile southwest of the town of Browning, Mont. The turbine was purchased from Zond and has a single generator capable of generating at 100 kW capacity. The Carbine site is at the top of a small hill and uses two acres of a 40-acre section of Blackfeet Tribal land.

A 90-foot meteorological tower was erected on the site in late 1994. Data from 45- and 90-foot sensors were gathered for a complete year prior to the erection of the turbine. 1995 annual wind speed and wind direction information, logged on a Second Wind data logger, provided a preliminary assessment of the site. The average annual wind speed at 90 feet was measured to be 21.1 mph with more than 50% of the overall available turbine energy coming from the southwest direction. These data encouraged the placement of the turbine at this site. In April 1996, foundation drawings and a foundation bolt template were obtained from Zond.

The tower foundation is approximately 119 tons of re-bar reinforced concrete with 16 anchor bolts embedded within the mold. The anchor bolts measure 6 feet long and 1.5 inches in diameter and are anchored, in groups of four, by plates submerged in the concrete. A threaded length of approximately 4 inches protrudes above the surface of the slab providing four sets of four-bolt tower pad mountings, which, due to the tolerances of the bolt template, fit the holes in the tower legs within a fraction of an inch. The turbine and tower was received by truck the first week of May. Workers from GEC unloaded and secured the equipment in GEC's sub-station yard north of Browning.

During the second week of May, the site and equipment were inspected and rough plans were made to schedule the construction. GEC workers installed the 0.25-mile power line, while Zond technicians worked with four local men and a 17-ton crane, to assemble the tower.

The tower was hoisted into position over the foundation mounting bolts, using a 55-ton crane transported in from Shelby, Mont. After securing the tower base nuts, the nacelle was hoisted to the top and securely mounted by the Zond technicians. The rotor was assembled and torqued on the ground next to the tower, with attention paid to correct pitch setting (on this turbine, the pitch was set as slightly de-tuned, due to the turbulent winds and thin air). The rotor was hauled to the hub and secured.

With the load and load bearing components of the turbine in-place, the tower bolts were individually torqued. At the same time the wiring, from the generator and sensors, was properly routed and terminated in the control panel adjacent to the foundation, which had been securely mounted on railroad tie posts. An underground PVC conduit provided a safe path for routing the three-phase power lines connecting the conductors in the control panel with the transformers at the power pole 50 feet away.

The meter purchased by GEC turned out to be inadequate for the installation and a proper one was obtained. During the delay, the turbine was finalized in terms of maintenance and adjustment. This process was integrated with a comprehensive training session.

The meter was installed and the turbine was given final checks. On May 19, the turbine was put on-line and ran with no problems for a period of two days. It was then shut down, and final inspection procedures were performed. At this time the Zond technicians left, returning to Tehachapi, Calif., and the turbine operation became fully the responsibility of local workers.

The turbine was operated normally from May 19, 1996, through July 31,1997. The only interruptions in the normal generating pattern were from monthly (originally bi-monthly) maintenance shut downs and from a three-week period in December 1996, where a power outage required a manual resetting of the control panel "faults." The remaining losses of production can be accounted for as controller loss, inadequate pitch settings, and dirty blades.

The controller for the V-17 uses 10-15 year old technology and is most likely the cause for the majority of the power losses. The turbine typically shuts down when wind speeds exceed 56 mph. A relay in the controller is set to require a full three-minute period of wind speeds below 40-45 mph before the turbine brakes are released and the generator is allowed to come on-line. During high wind days at the turbine site, the gusts and turbulence of the airflow can create a situation where the three-minute period required satisfying the reset criteria might not be obtained for hours. This may occur even though the average wind speed may be well within the safe operating range.

For example a gust of 65 mph will cause the wind speed relay to shut down, although the general wind speed may be 50 mph. The wind speed may reduce to 45-50 mph but the relay will not reset. As the wind speed is further reduced to 40 mph, gusts of 50 mph occurring during the three-minute reset period will cause the controller to remain in a "fault" mode. The losses of power production during these periods is of further note, in that, wind speeds at this level are where the turbine produces most of its power.

The poor power production efficiency is most notable during the winter months, where the temperatures are very low. In times of low temperature, the air density is reduced considerable. On a fixed pitch turbine, such as the Vestas V-17, the blade pitch is set to achieve the best efficiency over the entire annual temperature range. The clear loss of production during the cold months indicates that the pitch settings of the turbine blades are not able to "catch" as much power out of the wind during times of low air density. Additional power losses may be attributable to surface dirt or poor smoothness of the turbine blades.

The 181,824 kWh of energy produced by the Blackfeet Community College demonstration wind turbine offset the college's electric usage almost completely for the one-year period of the project. The power was purchased by GEC at a rate of $0.027/kWh, which is approximately 50% of the retail price of energy in GEC territory. The monthly power production sales were credited against the college's costs on a monthly basis reducing Blackfeet Community College's annual electric cost by $4,909.25.

One of the crucial components of the demonstration project was to evaluate the environmental impact, from the perspective of land use, visual interruption, and danger to birds (specifically raptors). The site on which the turbine was placed is easily visible from the town of Browning, Route 2 coming into the area from the east, the main route coming from the south, Highway 89 coming in from the west and Route 2 from Browning to East Glacier Park. There were no negative reactions to the installation reported either by local residents or by passing travelers. The only comments that have been made have been of interest and applause regarding the wind turbine project.

The tribe was contacted by Glacier Park Incorporated, and invited to meet with them to explore ways of installing wind turbines to power the facilities in the park. Likewise, numerous locals have been in contact, interested in possibly installing their own turbines. Travelers, newspapers, and local photographers have photographed the turbine and its image has been the graphical centerpiece of several articles and publications. There has been interest from distant and local sources as to the potential hazard to birds colliding with the blades. Data was recorded for the duration of the project by field observers.

Environmental Impacts

Over the course of the project, three students, from Blackfeet Community College, were individually employed as avian observation field technicians. The observer's job was to schedule two-hour periods, no less than every other day, to sit at the site and record the number, type, proximity, and behavior of the birds in the area as well as the climactic conditions. Each period was begun with a site inspection looking, specifically, for dead birds.

The time of day for the two-hour observation periods was cycled to give a more accurate sampling of the bird behavior. Periods from dawn to after dusk were sampled through all four seasons. Winter posed difficulties, as the workers found it necessary to walk to the site and to remain only as long as possible.

During the entire one-year period, only one death occurred. A bat was found within 25 feet of the installation. There was no observable damage to the bat's body and it is not clear that the blades killed it. It is possible that the bat may have tried to fly through the mesh of the cyclone fence around the turbine base.

The observers data reports indicate that many species of raptors inhabit the area as well as, geese, swans, ducks, herons, crows and smaller species such as swallows, sparrows, and other varied small birds. There was no incident of any bird being hurt or killed in the turbine blades, tower or the surrounding site. The interesting fact is that the eagles and hawks that were observed close to the turbine site, often approaching the turbine, as if on a collision course, only to eventually veer away, off to the side or over the top of the blades.

During a visit by Dine Power representatives, a Tribal member was driving the guests up the hill for a tour of the site. When the vehicle was a distance of perhaps 200 yards from the turbine base, he noticed two very large red-tailed hawks flying toward the turbine rotor. Hurrying the rest of the way, the people became uneasy about what it appeared might happen. The wind was coming from the southwest at approximately 45-50 mph and the turbine rotor was at full velocity.

As they got out of the truck, the two hawks had joined each other, side-by-side, less than 50 feet directly upwind from the spinning rotor. The birds remained stationary, hovering in the high wind, in this position for 3 to 5 minutes. After this time, they dipped forward and peeled off, each in a different direction, and settled into a glide at a distance of approximately 0.25 mile. They each circled lazily for the next 10 minutes, then glided away and out of sight.

The conclusion drawn from direct and indirect observation of raptor behavior at the turbine site is that not only are the birds aware of the presence of the blades, but they masterfully negotiate their way around otherwise dangerous obstacles posed by the installation.

Training, Education, and Community Impact

Members of the community, both on the reservation and off, have shown great interest in the turbine and the possibility of future wind energy installations. The program has provided a focus for a number of training programs in terms of education and community development.

The reservation community numbers approximately 8,000 people in which there is an estimated figure of 80% unemployment. During the construction phase, 20-25 local workers and service contractors received compensation for services contributing to the eventual installation. To the extent possible, it was the intent of this program to employ and involve as many community members as possible in setting up and operating the wind turbine. With the exception of the two technicians from Zond, the entire project was set up and operated by local people almost all of whom are Blackfeet tribal members.

Additionally, through in-kind contributions of labor, equipment, and services, GEC has contributed to the direct employment and training of local workers (tribal and non-tribal) and allowed an opportunity for first hand experience in the electrical set-up and operation work in a wind turbine project.

A joint training program between Blackfeet Community College and Blackfeet Joint Training Program Administration (JTPA) was initiated in 1996. The program was to provide jobs and training for local people centered on necessary tasks required to successfully complete the demonstration wind turbine project. The positions targeted for this joint training included, wind turbine operations and maintenance (O&M), avian impact field observation (recording local bird data at the wind turbine site) and the offering of a summer youth workshop for high school students.

Three local men were employed to assist with monthly maintenance on the turbine and worked directly with the tribe, climbing the tower, and performing the necessary repairs and maintenance. O&M technicians were paid a standard rate of $25/hour for approximately 10 hours per month for the duration of the project. Both technicians traveled to North Dakota in 1996 for a wind turbine O&M training program sponsored by the University of North Dakota and the Spirit Lake Tribe, centering on their Title XXVI wind turbine project. Each of the workers received a certificate for their training.

Three local women were employed as avian impact field observers to gather data on bird behavior around the turbine site and record information in a project lab notebook. Observers worked in conjunction with Blackfeet Fish and Wildlife, as required by the JTPA, and participated in educational improvement activities at Blackfeet Community College. Workers were compensated at the rate of $10/hour for approximately 20 hours per week. Blackfeet Community College and JTPA shared the cost equally.

During the week of July 22-26, 1996, a summer youth workshop was offered to young adults with an interest in learning more about the wind turbine. A dozen students participated in the one-week wind power workshop, which was conducted by the tribe at Blackfeet Community College. The program required 32 hours of commitment, which included classroom training, individual research, and field experience with the turbine. Students were given a stipend for their participation by JTPA a part of the community training agenda.

Blackfeet Community College, in conjunction with the DOE/EpSCOR program at Montana State University, initiated companion projects in the area of wind power technology education. These projects have created an opportunity for the students within the community to consider the potential of wind power generation as a likely industry on the reservation, and to conceivably pursue technical degrees with ambitions to find employment at home on the reservation. Faculty and administrative positions have been made available by the college in pursuit of these goals.

The courses have been offered through the Natural Resource Department at Blackfeet Community College. The NAT 290 course, titled "Wind Energy Conversion Technology," gives a pre-engineering background to students interested in building their understanding of the technical and scientific basis for machines in our present day world. The course emphasizes wind energy conversion technology, but also covers broad principles governing machines and engineered structures in general. The "hands-on" component of the course employs the wind turbine and the meteorological tower at the demonstration site.

In 1995, in conjunction with the MORE component of the DOE/EpSCOR program at Montana Tech, the tribe provided three, one-day Wind Power In-Service workshops for K-12 math and science teachers on three local reservations. The workshop was given to teachers at Browning schools (Blackfeet Reservation), Box Elder schools (Rocky Boy Reservation) and Hays-Lodgepole schools (Fort Belknap Reservation), and covered basics of wind energy relevant to the subjects taught by the teachers. At that time the demonstration turbine project was in the planning stage and the teachers and the students showed great interest. Since the construction of the turbine, there have a number of inquiries from these teachers.

The project has provided valuable knowledge and experience, which could be obtained no other way and has taught the community a great deal about wind energy development. The Blackfeet tribe is willing to share this experience and knowledge with other reservations and communities with similar interest in developing their own wind resources.

Future Outlook

Much of the economic benefit of the project will be realized at a future time if, and when, the tribe/community chooses to pursue more major involvement and can realize direct revenues from wind electric generation. These benefits will be in power sales profits, service contracts, professional employment, and revenues to related local support industries.

A proposal was written for future development in 1996-1997. The proposal was prepared following a year of investigation and research into the best scenario for the tribe to move ahead on energy projects. It incorporated perspectives gained by examination of the most recent advances made by other tribes in conjunction with federal organizations. The objective of the proposed action is to take advantage of the Tribe's status as a sovereign nation, and to provide the American public with clean reliable green power. The benefits to the tribe and the nation at large are obvious.

The proposal was presented to Chairman Earl Old Person and members of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council and is titled, "Creation of Blackfeet Tribal Utility Corporation." The package includes a proposal for the start-up of a tribally owned utility corporation. The following is an excerpt from the cover letter accompanying the document:

"In past discussions and meetings with the council, we have always agreed that the development of energy resources on the reservation could perhaps be done best by local people with the best interests of the Blackfeet Tribe at heart. Further, that Mr. Martin Wilde, of Wilde Coyote Engineering, should pursue avenues by which the tribe could capitalize on their position most fully.

After four years of research in this area, it is clear that the values of "Indian Energy " and "Green Energy" are higher than other types of power products. This is primarily because of the public attitude towards environmental issues and federal/state incentives to promote both of the above classes of energy.

The Blackfeet Tribe could either produce electricity or re-sell power bought from other suppliers to customers in these markets. There is a tremendous potential for economic development and future revenues through this type of business.

To enter the arena of energy supply and marketing contracts, the tribe would have to be a recognized utility organization. In order to make large scale power deals with outside entities, the organization would have to be a stand-alone entity with stability outside of the variations in policy and the turnovers in Tribal politics.

This proposal includes a detailed outline, and necessary legal instruments and applications, for the creation of a federally chartered corporation, owned 100% by the Blackfeet Tribe, but directed by its own board of directors.

Included in the packet are:

  • A resolution for the council to approve the process of creating the corporation.

  • An application to the Secretary of the Interior, through the BIA, for the chartering of the corporation.

  • A proposed board, general manager, and outside utility specialists.

  • Operational procedures for the board and officers to follow in management of corporate business.

  • A start-up budget to carry the first six months of operation.

  • Mr. Wilde has consulted other tribes, legal and other specialists, utility companies, and government agencies as well as people working with, and for, the Blackfeet Tribe and, with the legal and creative assistance of Ms. Margaret Schaff-Tenk, has prepared the enclosed proposal.

  • Please feel free to call Mr. Wilde at 338-7945 regarding any questions or comments prior to the General council meeting."

There was a fair amount of discussion with the 1996-1998 council and the majority of the council members, as well the legal, economic development, and planning departments, and all were in favor of moving ahead with the proposal. Since the end of summer 1998 and the election of a new council, there has been no further discussion on the topic. At present, the issue is still on the table.

Results, Conclusions, Findings, and Recommendations

The Blackfeet demonstration wind turbine project has met or surpassed the proposed goals, in terms of feasibility, education, and stimulation of local interest in wind energy. It has provided a tangible example of the possibilities available to the reservation community and has shown that, although this community does not always lend its self freely to development of concept ideas, there is a way to accomplish the seemingly impossible.

The project's main accomplishment has been to provide a highly visible and positive example of progressive development and, consequently, a sense of hope and enthusiasm to many members of the reservation community.

Project Status

For project status or additional information, contact the project contact.

Project Contact

The Blackfeet Tribe of Montana
PO Box 850
Browning, MT 59417
Telephone: (406) 338-7901