By Andrea Richard
While water is the life-blood needed for living beings’ survival, but it can also be used as a viable source of renewable energy called hydroelectricity. In Polson, Montana, the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes acquired the Kerr Dam in 2015 for $18.2 million, becoming the first tribes to own such an operation. But it didn’t come without major obstacles.
Due to the Dawes Act of 1887, the Kerr Dam was built by the Rocky Mountain Power Company despite opposition from the Flathead Indian Reservation. It was completed in 1938. The dam was later acquired by the Montana Power Company, then NorthWestern Energy bought it.
In the following decades, the CSKT fought to take over the facility, with negotiations beginning in the late 1970s. In 1985, the tribes began negotiated for the license. Then, Energy Keepers was established in 2012 as a tribal corporation to acquire, market and operate the facility.
For financing, the tribes worked with the U.S. Department of Energy and grantmaking organizations to raise $12 million and they secured loans from the CSKT Tribal Council. The acquisition occurred in Sept. 2015, and thus, CSKT changed the Kerr Dam’s name to Sèliê Ksanka Qĺispé Dam.
EKI employs a staff of 27, of which more than half are tribal members. The net revenue goes back 100 percent to the tribes, which are located on the Flathead River a few miles downstream from Flathead Lake. EKI operates as an independent power provider across the state and as far as Las Vegas and in the Southwest.
Brian Lipscomb, the president and CEO of Energy Keepers, says that it produces 1.1 million megawatts of electricity on an annual basis and provides energy for about 70,000 customers, including some of Montana’s major industrial companies.
“We saw the acquisition of this dam as another step towards the perpetuation of the culture and future for our tribal people,” he says.
For tribes considering a move into hydro-electricity, Lipscomb says, “The first thing I would tell another tribe is to step back and think about what is your business model – do you want to see renewable energy as an economic driver? You have to think about your goals and the business structure you want to pursue.”
In addition, energy is a 24/7 and volatile industry. Energy Keepers buys and sells energy hourly as a wholesale commodity.
“I talk to tribes that don’t have their own electric service,” he says. “They might want to create a micro grid and sell it back to the local utility company. There are different capacities that they would need to be successful. The other side is taking the energy into a wholesale commodity market, you need to be sophisticated in that marketplace.”
The wholesale market has shifted, he says. “It has been reduced in half since when we made the decision to buy. Why? For two reasons: renewable energy subsidies and natural gas supply.”
Looking forward, EKI is seeking alternative sources of revenue, he says.
“Stabilization of our revenue and improving this asset and we have to do significant rehab and maintenance of the facility. And we are looking for other opportunities to acquire more resources and trade more in the energy industry,” he says. ♦