Students at Blackfeet Community College in Browning are using one of their reservation’s biggest assets—wind—as a way to generate electricity and help decrease the school’s utility bills.
The college, with financial backing from the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Energy and the U.S. Air Force, is involved in a variety of wind-power projects and studies, says Terry Tatsey, director of the school’s U.S. Department of Agriculture and vocational education programs.
The first phase consisted of erecting and running a 100-kilowatt prototype generator now managed by the Blackfeet Tribe’s Siyeh Development Corporation. Another 10-kilowatt wind system currently provides nearly 20 percent of the energy needs at the college’s voc-ed building, Tatsey says, and a new hybrid system that harnesses both solar and wind power will be built near campus this spring.
Also in the generation arsenal is a small mobile unit. The 10-foot-high structure’s primary purpose is to track wind and weather data, which is recorded and analyzed by students. A five-year NSF grant, awarded three years ago, is aimed toward research, while the combined DOE and Air Force funding helps pay for equipment.
The Blackfeet Reservation is among the windiest places in the United States, but that doesn’t mean that wind is a fail-safe way to produce power.
“Even though it blows here a lot, it does slow down sometimes,” Tatsey explains. “I always joke that during an election year, we get a little more wind.”
Tatsey says doing groundbreaking work can have its downsides. Some of the reservation’s first wind turbines, which turned out to be quite noisy at times, were constructed near a residential area and generated complaints. The 100-watt model also has technical problems that still need to be ironed out.
“It’s been a learning experience,” he says. “It’s been a real good program for us, very rewarding for the students. We’re looking at things with a holistic approach for our energy needs.”