There is a revolution under way to bring renewable resources to Native American people. Led by modern-day warrior Henry Red Cloud, a direct fifth generation descendent of Red Cloud, the famous Lakota war chief, and Trees, Water & People (TWP), inroads are being made one home and one business at a time.
Count among its most recent advances a two-kilowatt photovoltaic array installed in October at KILI Radio, a public radio station serving the Lakota people of the Pine Ridge, Cheyenne River and Rosebud reservations. The solar-power system was donated by Namasté Solar, while the manpower was provided by Red Cloud’s company, Lakota Solar Enterprises (LSE) and his Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center (RCREC). Count among the ranks of volunteers on site for the installation seven students from the Shoshone Bannock, Oglala Lakota, Cheyenne River Sioux, and Northern Cheyenne tribes—solar warriors in training at the RCREC.
Ground zero for this revolution is the Pine Ridge reservation in South Dakota, home to more than 28,000 Oglala Sioux. Here, where housing is scarce and jobs scarcer—and where more than 90 percent of the people live below the federal poverty level—winters are long and almost always brutally frigid. Those fortunate enough to keep warm typically use propane, and they pay dearly for it, with bills often running to more than $400 a month. Red Cloud sees green power not only as a way to reduce home heating costs, but as a way to lead his people out of economic despair. “Last year, more than $1 million was spent on propane and electricity to keep our members warm. We can take that money and turn it around, start some businesses,” he says.
Born in 1960 and raised by his grandparents, Red Cloud spent 16 years off the reservation. He returned to Pine Ridge in 1992 with the hope of finding a job and housing. He found neither. Although he could have turned around and gone back to what he was doing, which was structural steel at construction sites around the country, he decided to stay and work toward fulfilling a dream. While working in construction, he had been exposed to natural (sustainable) building and renewable energy methods and technologies. Always attuned to the connection between his people and nature, he was drawn to them. In fact, he had such a strong desire to learn everything he could that he frequently volunteered at natural building and renewable energy project sites throughout the Southwest. He says this led to a vision of a renewable-energy training facility in Indian country.
In 2002, Fort Collins, Colorado–based TWP, an organization devoted to helping communities around the world protect, conserve, and manage their natural resources, came to the Pine Ridge reservation to offer tribal members solar heating systems. Around the same time, Red Cloud was constructing homemade solar heating systems and wind turbines using anything he could find, including auto parts and soda cans. TWP and Red Cloud came together in 2003. TWP was delivering a solar energy workshop on the reservation, and Red Cloud, of course, stopped by to volunteer. Richard Fox, executive director of TWP, says Red Cloud was probably the only person on the reservation who actually knew what a solar air heater was. “I am certain he is the only one that had actually built one before we arrived.” The volunteer arrangement evolved into a job for Red Cloud, running the TWP program on Pine Ridge for a couple of years.
In 2006, Red Cloud started his own business, LSE, to make and sell small-scale solar heating systems that TWP agreed to distribute. In developing the system, which took about two years, Fox says TWP contracted with a Colorado company to work with Red Cloud to redesign the panels it had been offering on the reservation, which were based on a model created in the 1970s. (The first 70 panels were produced in the Colorado plant to work out manufacturing bugs.) The new system, priced at about $2,000 (including installation), consists of a four-foot-by-eight-foot solar collector panel and a 60-watt electric blower that pulls cool air from the home, heat it, and then blows the warm air back in.
Red Cloud’s dream—Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center—opened in 2008. The center has six to eight training sessions per year, all taking place from spring to mid-fall. Class sizes range from three to 40, and sessions last from one to three weeks. Fox and Red Cloud call the more than 150 Native Americans, the majority right out of high school, who have been trained at the facility “green teams.” Many of them become certified solar technicians and then go to their reservations to work for their tribes. A couple of trainees have even established their own renewable energy businesses. Fox says, “We want these green teams to get more and more training in renewable energy. They will be able to get training in solar electric, in wind turbines, ground source heat, making houses out of straw bale.”
Located between the towns of Pine Ridge and Oglala—on 1001 Solar Warrior Road, to be exact—the LSE and RCREC complex employs nine full-time workers and several part-timers during the busy season. The compound’s main building is a Quonset hut, measuring 30 feet by 70 feet. On the lower floor, there are workshops where the solar air heaters are built and students are trained. A loft area contains two rooms with seven bunk beds each, a bathroom and a kitchen to accommodate trainees. There are also three straw bale homes on the property, where Red Cloud and his family live, a sweat lodge, a camping space and a greenhouse that will, soon, be a nursery for tree seedlings. Another building currently being constructed will be for training and housing more students. Called the Red Cloud Training Annex, the 40-foot-by-60-foot steel Quonset hut will sleep 24 people.
The campus is a lesson on how to tap into nature for clean power. A two-kilowatt photovoltaic array and a wind turbine supply electricity to the main building. The array was donated and installed in 2009 by Namasté Solar as part of solar electricity workshop that was attended by local residents and Rosebud Sioux tribal members. Red Cloud says the systems offset the electric bill by about 40 percent. The straw bale homes were built in stages, with the first one erected in 2010, the second in 2011 and the third in August. The circular, 450-square-foot home that went up this summer was made with approximately 100 bales of hay, clay and dirt—and the hands of many volunteers. With a sunken floor two feet deep to take advantage of the Earth’s natural insulation and thick straw bales within the walls, these structures are more energy-efficient than conventional homes.
As a partner of LSE and RCREC, TWP raises money to get the solar heaters that are made in Red Cloud’s workshops donated to people on the reservations, says Lacey Gaechter, TWP’s national director. It also coordinates the training, which it either co-hosts or contracts with tribes to host, and does fund-raising to get equipment for students to train on and cover tuition costs for trainees. Sometimes TWP works with tribes to provide the heaters as well as the training. For example, Fox says the Eastern Shoshone of the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming has committed to buy 25 heaters and pay for the training of tribal members to install and maintain them.
“My biggest dream is for First Nations communities to be energy independent before mainstream America. I think we can do it doing small-scale, residential-scale—put the power of the sun and the wind back into the peoples’ hands,” Red Cloud says.
“A lot of tribes dove into big solar arrays or big wind farms. It costs millions and takes 10 years and all kinds of people make money off of it,” Fox adds. LSE’s systems are affordable and deliver immediate results and savings, as they generate 20 percent to 30 percent of a home’s or business’s heat. More than 1,400 of these units are currently installed on Pine Ridge and other reservations in the Great Plains states and beyond. Fox recalls installing a heater for a woman living on Standing Rock. He says it was close to 30 degree below zero when it went up; when they were done, she turned the heater on and it blew 110-degree heat into her house. Fox says, “Our concept is this family- and facility-scale renewable energy. If people and tribes would do more of that, they would get the people behind it. Just because it is small-scale does not mean it does not make a big impact.”
Red Cloud and TWP have plans to expand into other areas of Indian country. Right now, Gaechter says they are focusing on the Navajo reservation mainly because it is so far away from its complex, making it more costly to bring people up for training and to ship equipment there. “It really would not be a replica of what we are doing with Henry, but another way of distributing renewable energy in another part of the country,” she says.
The efforts of Red Cloud and TWP have not gone unnoticed. In 2010, Red Cloud was the recipient of the Nuclear-Free Future Award, presented by the Franz Moll Foundation. More recently, in September he traveled to Vienna, to accept two awards: the 2012 World Energy Globe Award, awarded to LSE, and the Energy Globe Award in the Youth category.
“Receiving the first award was stunning. Receiving the overall global award, my knees were shaking,” Red Cloud says. “I found that working with youth—they really understand renewable energy in a real deep sense due to their culture, language, songs, way of life, ceremony. The students are the ones who made this happen.”