Renewable Energy, Energy Efficiency on the Rise in Indian Country

Credit: Lakota Solar Enterprises
Credit: Lakota Solar Enterprises

Read the series companion piece to this post, Native Americans, Renewable Energy and Environmental Justice.

Natural resources on Native American lands have been instrumental in the socioeconomic development of cities, suburbs and rural areas across the American West. Native Americans living on tribal lands continue to struggle with a basic lack of infrastructure (water, electricity and transport), public services (health and education), and opportunities to better themselves socially and economically, however. Adding to all this, they live with and shoulder the costs of the resulting long-term and unaccounted for damage and degradation to ecosystems and the essential services they provide.

Looking to turn the tide in their favor, Native Americans, with support from the federal government, are increasingly turning to renewable energy and energy efficiency in a bid to develop and realize the untapped human, as well as wind, solar, biomass and geothermal, energy and resource potential that resides on Native American tribal lands. TriplePundit (3p) spoke with two individuals at the center of this movement, one that seeks to address the issues of environmental justice and conservation along with sustainable socioeconomic development.

Harnessing the energy of the sun, winds, waters and Earth

In addition to providing much needed access to clean, reliable and cost-effective sources of water and electricity, kickstarting development of renewable energy and energy efficiency projects and businesses on Native American tribal lands can provide a boost in terms of creating jobs and economic opportunity.

In addition, they are in tune with traditional Native American values, beliefs and attitudes towards nature and the physical environment, as they are with the broader, modern day societal trends that underpin calls for greater corporate sustainability, social responsibility and environmental justice.

Akin to solar, wind, hydro, biomass and geothermal energy,

“Our language, our song, our cultural traditions are based on the Sun, the winds, the Earth and its waters,” Henry Red Cloud, a pioneering Native American renewable energy advocate and founder of Lakota Solar Enterprises and the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center, stated in a 3p interview.

A descendant of Oglala Lakota chiefs, Red Cloud has been promoting the Triple Bottom Line economic, social and positive environmental potential of renewable energy and energy efficiency at the local, regional and national levels for over a decade. Campaigning for renewable energy and Native American tribal rights around the nation, as well as running his own renewable energy business and an educational and training center, Red Cloud walks the talk.

Red Cloud’s Lakota Solar Enterprises provides a full range of energy efficiency and solar energy products and services to Native Americans far and near, including South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Reservation, his hometown. Home of the Oglala Lakota Nation and some 40,000 residents, Pine Ridge’s Native Americans have traditionally lacked access to modern, reliable sources of water, heat and power, conditions that haven’t been lost on Red Cloud.

Credit: Lakota Solar Enterprises
Credit: Lakota Solar Enterprises

Besides energy audits and the installation of solar hot water, air heaters and off-grid or grid-tied photovoltaic (PV) systems, Lakota Solar, to Red Cloud’s knowledge, is the only Native American-owned manufacturer of solar energy equipment in the U.S.

“For solar and the other things we’re doing here, we can manufacture and install a solar air heating unit in a matter of hours, as well as solar water heating systems. Our first focus is efficiency and weatherization. That way, the customer ends up with a smaller renewable energy application that pays for itself more quickly,” he explained.

Realizing the potential of Native Americans’ human resources

Red Cloud and company’s efforts don’t stop there, however. The Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center is a gathering place for education and training, providing the opportunity for a generation of Native Americans to acquire skills, knowledge and experience they can use to obtain employment, start their own businesses, and spread both word and use of the benefits and advantages solar, renewable energy and energy efficiency can bring to Native Americans and communities around the nation.

Through the Energy Center, Red Cloud has worked with 22 Native American tribes across the Northern Plains and Southwest to build the capacity of Native Americans to make the most of the renewable energy resources on their lands, as well as the latest developments in renewable energy and energy efficiency.

Such efforts also encompass affordable green building and architectural design, including building low cost, energy efficient rammed earth housing.

“We design and build whole home, residential scale systems. As far as I know, I’m the only Native American to own a U.S. solar manufacturing facility. I’m getting out there to share it so we can have more across the Native American tribal nation,” Red Cloud told 3p.

As we were speaking, Red Cloud was waiting to welcome a new group of students arriving for the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center’s latest renewable energy development program. To date, 180 students had passed through Red Cloud’s 7-day, 70-hour program, resulting in the creation of 160 part-time and full-time jobs, according to Red Cloud.

Red Cloud and company firmly believe that solar and renewable energy’s time has come. He has a vision of Native American communities leading the nation forward, away from fossil fuels and toward a future where the Native American tribal nation will be the first in the U.S. to provide all residents, and meet all its power and water needs, by harnessing solar and a range of other renewable energy resources. As Red Cloud stated,

“The technology has proven itself. It’s creating job opportunities, thanks in no small part to federal and tribal programs. Working with federal agencies I can make solar energy and energy efficiency improvements affordable.”

Kickstarting renewable energy, energy efficiency on Native American tribal lands

Speaking of federal agencies, 3p also spoke with Lizana Pierce, one of just two full-time staff employed in the DOE Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy’s (EERE) Tribal Energy Program, to gain greater insight as to the impetus that’s driving renewable energy and energy efficiency initiatives forward on tribal lands, and how the federal government is contributing to them.

Since 2002, Pierce and colleagues in the DOE Tribal Energy Program have been leveraging an annual budget of around $6 million to build a tribal renewable energy information resource base and network capable of developing and carrying out strategic plans and projects spanning all 566 Native American tribes – a population estimated at around 2 million.

“Tribes in every geographic area tend to have a varied base of renewable energy resources that could be put to use, either locally or remotely,” Pierce said during a 3p interview. “It depends on the tribe, but I’m convinced that there’s huge potential. The numbers are very, very large. Every tribe with a land base has some sort of resource. And then there’s always the possibility of reducing consumption by enhancing energy efficiency.”

The federal government has supported renewable energy development among Native American tribes since the early 1990s, though such efforts – for economic, technological and legal reasons – have been limited in nature, scope and scale – up until recently, that is.

In recent years, Native American tribes have negotiated the first large-scale wind and solar power projects, such as the Moapa Paiutes’ recently announced plans to develop as much as 1.5 gigawatts (GW) of solar power capacity on tribal lands in Nevada. Along with such large-scale developments, a groundswell of small-scale, local activity has been building up around renewable energy and energy efficiency, Pierce told 3p.

Credit: DOE EERE Tribal Energy Program
Credit: DOE EERE Tribal Energy Program

Pierce held up the case of the Campo Band of Mission Indians as an illustration of the direction things are heading. Initially signing a land lease deal with the developer of a 50-MW wind farm on their tribal lands in 2004, tribal leadership is now taking a much more active role in renewable energy resource development. The Campo Band of Mission Indians will have a much deeper and beneficial ownership interest in Kumeyaay Wind II, a 300-MW wind farm, a project whose two phases are expected to be completed in 2015.

Along with the DOE and the tribes themselves, other stakeholders, such as the Grand Canyon Trust, see great potential in developing community renewable energy projects and small businesses in Indian country.

“What we’re seeing is that to meet community needs locally we ought to be looking at smaller scale renewable energy projects that could both produce revenues from outside reservations, but also meet local needs,” Roger Clark, executive director of air quality and clean energy progams, elaborated during a 3p interview.

“Top-down approaches have dominated government relationships on reservations for decades. The struggle is for people to play a role in their own economic destiny, not only in what’s developed, but in terms of what’s considered and what’s possible in terms of community benefits.”

“In the last three or four years, we have put more focus on community scale projects for the very reason that there are huge challenges for large-scale projects,” DOE Tribal Energy Program’s Pierce related. “We have funded small scale renewable energy and energy efficiency projects for near term cost reduction and energy self-sufficiency for the tribes. For each tribe it could be different, so each one really needs to have their energy vision and plan in place.”

In addition to organizing workshops throughout the year, once every year the Tribal Energy Program invites all its active project participants to gather for a renewable energy and energy efficiency “pow-wow,” if you will.

“There are huge benefits to having tribes talk to tribes,” Pierce explained. “And when you get 200-250 tribal representatives in one place, it’s truly magical. There’s a huge information flow, people learn from each other. That’s the beauty of it.”

An independent journalist, researcher and writer, my work roams across the nexus where ecology, technology, political economy and sociology intersect and overlap. The lifelong quest for knowledge of the world and self -- not to mention gainful employment -- has led me near and far afield, from Europe, across the Asia-Pacific, Middle East and Africa and back home to the Americas. LinkedIn: andrew burger Google+: Andrew B Email:

6 responses

  1. This is wonderful! It’s smart and by example leading our Nation. I wonder if this article could go on the “Kickstart” website and ask for funding to create a trust that would be established to help this effort for Native Americans across the nation?

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