The Pine Ridge Reservation estimates 80% unemployment - and that can make every job important. Renewable energy installation can create jobs. In fact, a Pine Ridge man trains Native people around the country on the skills they need to work with solar energy.
Lakota Solar Enterprises is based on a plot of land off a road on the Pine Ridge Reservation. There are trailers filled with solar generators and panels scattered among small buildings. Henry Red Cloud founded the company. He grew up in Pine Ridge and moved away for a career in construction.
“So I know everything that there is about building from ground zero to water to septic to electrical. And then I found myself the last 10 years involved as a structural steel worker.”
Red Cloud worked on high rises for the last stint of his career, then moved back to the reservation. And that’s when he discovered a new passion.
“I started back in 1997 looking at solar energy at that time because I found it fascinating and I needed some way to power my home.”
Red Cloud says getting energy to his isolated home was expensive, so he looked for a renewable solution. He traveled the country for six years studying solar power and installation. He learned how solar energy can provide electricity, heat water and heat a home.. When Red Cloud came back to Pine Ridge, he used soda cans to as part of an off-grid system of his own…
“An animal of a solar furnace.”
Red Cloud’s original design used soda cans to create sustainable solar panels. As he refined his design, he swapped out the cans with other materials. But the system is basically the same. It pulls in air, heats it, and then uses that warm air throughout the day.
“I took the 1970’s concept and implemented 21st century material and came up with a super hot box.”
In 2003, Red Cloud opened Lakota Solar Enterprises as a manufacturing company. He says only one other company in the United States was producing this type of solar furnace. His units are connected to the outside of a house and are standalone- which means they create their own power during the daytime by collecting heat from the sun.
“Now we’ve got thousands spread out, a lot of people so I’m sharing the concept.”
Red Cloud was awarded an honorary doctorate from Washington University and an MIT Fellowship for his work in solar energy.
Soon after manufacturing began, he started inviting students from tribes all over the country to learn about solar energy and installation. Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center is an accredited university. He encourages students to take their skills back to their own tribes to build sustainable projects...and so far, it’s worked.
“Up to today, I’m working with 37 of the federally recognized tribes in their residential solar projects creating an economic opportunity and helping people to lessen their carbon moccasin print.”
About 900 students from 37 tribes have graduated, some from South Dakota reservations. Red Cloud says this training is a great economic opportunity.
“I saw the need there for myself and then I stumbled on the fact, I said ‘man this can be a business, people can go to work.”
He says South Dakota has great potential for solar energy because there are more than 300 days of sunlight. But there’s one major barrier that discourages people from switching to solar-the price. Red Bear says in most states, switching to solar energy in a residential home pays for itself pretty quickly.
“Seven years being the top end to pay for your whole system, then the rest of the 25 years, you’re saving money.”
South Dakota is one of only a few states in the country that doesn’t use what’s called a net metering policy. And that means it takes consumers longer to pay off their solar installations.
Net energy metering lets homes and businesses sell excess power back to their utility - at market rates. The South Dakota Public Utility Commision hasn’t approved net metering, partly because it makes utilities pay more for that energy.
In other states, there’s a debate over how to create a policy that compensates solar customers without putting the costs on non-solar customers.
Red Cloud says switching to a net metering system would encourage South Dakota residents to switch to solar energy.
“But let’s get together and let’s change that so we could really start to save. You know, we’re the sunshine state.”
Red Cloud says changing state policy would create more job opportunities for his students, like Leo Bear.
Bear is from a band of the Shoshone-Bannock in Idaho. He made his first trip to Pine Ridge for training in 2008 and took a class at Lakota Solar Enterprise.
“Henry was doing a demonstration on the solar furnaces so I go to tinker around, what I’m doing now right here. And I got to play with things ‘oh that works, that’s cool’. And then once I got to see what it did and push out the heat, I was hooked.”
Bear has traveled back and forth between the states ever since to work with solar installations or even just tinker.
“What I’m building here is a solar generator. What it does, it receives power from a panel which will what we call trickle charge like a battery on a vehicle.”
Bear says a charged generator can power things like cell phones and normal household appliances. And if it’s in sunlight…
“It’ll just constantly charge itself. It’s like a regular piece of equipment. You’ve got to maintenance it but on these, it’s all free, you don’t have to buy gas, no emissions. We’re good free energy.
This concept of free, renewable energy is what captivates Bear. Eventually, he plans on creating and selling his own solar generators. Bear says he’s proud of the work he’s been a part of.
“That’s why it draws me back, because it’s like what do it get to build next.”
Bear helped install solar panels on a tribally owned radio station on Pine Ridge. KILI is a non profit, non commercial, community radio station that’s been on the air since the 80’s. Tom Casey is the Station Manager. He says the station uses a lot of electricity.
“We worked with Henry Red Cloud and we put up a two killawatt solar array on the roof and that was successful so we went back, got some resources and with Henry’s help we added a three killawatt solar array on the rough. And so between those two solar arrays and a ten kilowatt wind turbine, we were able to cut our electric bill in half.”
In 2018, KILI radio added another solar array that can produce an additional 20 kilowatts of energy. Casey says the station wants to be as green as possible and using solar power sets an example for the community.
“You know everyone across the reservation has to deal with utility costs and you have to deal with electricity or deal with propane. If you can in some way be able to defer some of those costs through renewable energy weather it be solar of wind, I think it’s fantastic, it’s the way to go.”
There’s a new solar project in the works on the Pine Ridge Reservation that calls for nearly 500,000 solar panels. What’s being called Lookout Solar Park will be the largest solar project in South Dakota. Organizers plan to hire Henry Red Cloud and his students to help with installation and training.