Harnessing the Sun, Lakota Style
By MIKE KOSHMRL, Photos by DAN BIHN
In the Great Plains snowbelt, the wintertime spike in utility costs is an annoyance for all, and burdensome for many. In Pine Ridge, S.D., per capita annual income is less than $6,300. Shannon County, home to 80 percent of the residents at Pine Ridge, is the second-most impoverished in the United States. Unemployment hovers near 90 percent. Life expectancy is 47 years for men and 54 years for women — among countries in the Western Hemisphere, only Haiti is worse.
A $300 monthly utility bill can mean holding off on a trip to the grocery store, or forgoing refilling a prescription medication. In the worst cases, when a storm has set in and a propane tank is empty, it can be deadly.
“We do lose elders here every year because of this,” said Richard Fox. Fox is national program director at Trees, Water and People (TWP treeswaterpeople.org), a nonprofit headquartered in Fort Collins, Colo., that supports sustainable heat, light and cooking technology for native peoples across the Americas. “They run out of propane on the 25th, and they’re waiting for a check to come on the first. They convince themselves that they can go without heat for five days, then a storm hits and they end up being found dead.”
This reality of life at Pine Ridge became a priority after TWP hired Cynthia Isenhour, an anthropologist who had identified the most pressing socioeconomic issues affecting the average Lakota family. A key issue was the high cost of heating, caused by housing typified by thin-walled trailers and ramshackle one-story ramblers and exacerbated by the grossly inadequate natural gas infrastructure. More than 90 percent of residences on the reservation are heated with pricier options, mostly propane, electric heat and wood stoves. Isenhour’s research showed that heating expenses consumed 50 to 70 percent of a typical household’s cash income during the coldest months of the year.
Beginning in 2002, TWP researched ways to reduce the Lakotas’ heating expenses. They concluded that active solar heaters, due to their simple, low-cost construction, would return more British thermal units (Btu) for every dollar invested than any other technology. They then helped to establish a manufacturing and installation business, Lakota Solar Enterprises (LSE), which now employs eight locals full-time. The venture has provided more than 700 supplemental solar air heaters, at no cost, to households at impoverished reservations across the Great Plains, including Pine Ridge, Rosebud and Cheyenne River in South Dakota, Spirit Lake in North Dakota and White Earth in Minnesota.
Active Solar Air Heating – At a Glance
Solar air heaters, while not commonplace, are a tried and true technology.
The first solar air heater was patented in 1890, and a number of models came on the market before the energy crises of the 1970s. When a federal incentive was launched in 1975, investment and development of solar air heaters spiked, and by 1980 some 85 companies offered systems. After 1985 the federal incentive was pulled, innovation nearly ceased, and the number of manufacturers and installers declined rapidly.
Today, unglazed solar air heaters developed by the National Renewable Energy Lab, called transpired collectors, are the more common air-heating technology, but a couple of companies still offer glazed-box collectors.
A Natural Partnership Forms
TWP’s Fox said that from the start, active solar air heaters offered to bring jobs to a community desperate for them. “The air heaters don’t require a high degree of technical expertise, which we knew was important if we wanted to get the community involved and put to work,” Fox said. He also knew the heaters would be a good hook for fundraising efforts, an important consideration for a nonprofit. “We can go to a foundation and say: You put in $50,000 and you’re directly providing 25 families with a solar air-heating system,” he said. Then in 2004, while giving a workshop in air heater installation at Oglala Lakota College on the Pine Ridge Reservation (olc.edu), Fox had a fortuitous encounter with a local.
Fox was teaching a group gathered around a solar panel when Henry Red Cloud drove by the community college. Red Cloud pulled a U-turn and started listening. Earlier that year, while operating his firewood business, Red Cloud had heard about solar air heaters. Curiosity aroused, he had found an online do-it-yourself guide and phoned Bret Tschacher, a friend, to participate in some garage magic. Using a walk-in freezer door as the back end, Red Cloud and Tschacher pulled together a crude solar air heater that day, working into the night. When the sun came up, they were surprised to find it serviceable.
The following spring, TWP came up with some financial support and was able to fund an expanded program at Pine Ridge. Fox asked Red Cloud to lead TWP’s Pine Ridge effort, not only for his personal experience with the technology, but also because of his name, which had significance in the community. Henry’s great-great grandfather, Chief Red Cloud, led the Oglala Lakota from 1868 to 1909 and is regarded as the last great Lakota war chief. TWP would provide marketing and business development assistance if Red Cloud would run a Lakota-owned-and- operated manufacturing and installation business. Red Cloud signed on, and Lakota Solar Enterprises was formed.
Business Grows, Heating Bills Shrink
Before the manufacturing side of the business was shifted to Red Cloud, TWP undertook a two-year reengineering program, aimed at incorporating efficient materials that were not available when solar air heaters first became popular in the 1970s. Engineers built a succession of prototypes with incremental improvements, but the project eventually was run by an engineer who calls himself Lotus, from Rocky Mountain Solar & Wind (RMSW; rockymtnsolar.com) in Colorado Springs, Colo. The reengineering process looked at every possible part and configuration, and many parts were re-sourced to increase heat production and retention. Some materials, like the adhesives, were changed to accommodate an absorber that could reach temperatures higher than 160°F (71°C).
The final design was a 32-square-foot (2.97-square-meter) solar heating panel. Orient- ed south and tilted 59 degrees from horizontal, it captured solar heat with an efficiency of 48.8 percent, which projected to 4.9 million Btu per South Dakota heating season. That’s equivalent to 1.436 megawatt-hours of electricity. Satisfied with this performance, TWP contracted with RMSW to begin manufacturing. Lotus and the TWP team standardized an efficient manufacturing process and visited Pine Ridge to teach it to Red Cloud and Tschacher. TWP handed over the tooling and a step-by-step training video, and LSE assumed manufacturing.
The LSE solar air heater looks nothing like the product of a NASA lab. It’s a 1970s-era technology, implemented with 21st-century materials and tweaked “Lakota style,” as Red Cloud puts it. It looks makeshift but is sturdy and reliable. The goal was not to market a consumer product to the outside world, but to create a simple, environmentally friendly, inexpensive way to reduce Lakota heating bills.
It works. For $2,000, including shipping, manufacturing and installation, the system can offset 15 to 30 percent of an average household’s heating costs for 25 years. The heaters are purely supplemental, with no heat storage. The 4.9 million Btu produced annually displace 82 gallons of propane burned in a 65 percent-efficient furnace, saving the homeowner $150 per year at today’s regional propane rates. Because TWP provides the heaters for free, that is money in pocket.
Through 2008, TWP financed LSE’s heaters primarily through individual donations and small foundation grants. They managed to fund just over 200 systems, most of which were distributed on a needs basis around the Pine Ridge Reservation. TWP received several federal grants in 2009, under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. It proved be a watershed year at LSE. Demand spiked, and the shop, now named the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center (RCREC), hired five full-time laborers. That year 278 LSE kits went out, and in 2010, another 203 left the production line. To date, TWP and LSE have placed about 700 solar air-heating kits.
Most systems produced during the last two years have been sold outside Pine Ridge. To accommodate this “export” business, RCREC has doubled as a one-of-a-kind training facility, where tribes from around the nation can learn about the LSE installation techniques. Fifty-two “solar warriors” have now received “Solar Technician I” certificates from Red Cloud. His tutelage has enabled installation of 443 air heaters by locals on reservations as far away as White Earth, of the Band of Ojibwe, in Minnesota.
“A New Way to Honor the Old Ways”
Since 2005, TWP and LSE have worked to import other renewable energy technologies onto tribal lands. That year they set up a demonstration home on the Rosebud Reservation, just west of Pine Ridge. Partnering with Rosebud’s Clean Energy Education Partnership, TWP and LSE outfitted the Little Thunder residence with a 2.4-kilowatt (kW) wind turbine, 1.3-kW photo- voltaic (PV) system, windbreak and shade trees, and an LSE solar air heater.
The Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center now matches those five applications and is adding a sixth, with a ground-source heating system along its north wall. Tschacher, Red Cloud’s “wind warrior,” now leads wind turbine-installation workshops at RCREC. Along with Red Cloud and LSE staff, Tschacher installed a SkyStream 3.7 turbine (skystreamenergy.com) at RCEC last May. A 2-kW PV array followed in July, courtesy of Namaste Solar (namastesolar.com) of Boulder, Colo. Red Cloud and Tschacher plan to acquire NABCEP certification under open scholarships to Solar Energy International (solarenergy.org) in Carbondale, Colo.
Red Cloud calls renewable energy “a new way to honor the old ways”— drawing on nature in alignment with Native American cultural and spiritual beliefs. At Pine Ridge, the electricity displaced by the LSE project means less reliance on the Nebraska Public Power District, which generates 96 percent of its electricity from coal. The Lakota, and other tribes, will have plenty of opportunity to move away from fossil fuels. Research at the National Renewable Energy Lab has shown that wind and solar potential on tribal lands is quite good. Ironically, this is in part because their reservations were often situated on the hottest, driest, windiest, and therefore least desirable, parcels in the West.
While a renewable energy venture like LSE might still be in a philanthropy-dependent stage, it’s a first step to pulling Native American communities out of generational poverty.
Mike Koshmrl is SOLAR TODAY’s assistant editor.