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Lakota Solar Inspiration

Paul Kando

Henry Red Cloud spent years working as a “steel monkey” assembling the skeletons of skyscrapers high above the streets of New York and other cities. He saw much of America, but always hoped to go home, find a job and spend quality time with his Oglalla Sioux people.

Job training for Solar installation
photo credit: Lakota Solar

In 2000 he finally returned. But the reservation he found was like a colonial economy — indigenous settlements largely dependent on franchise and chain stores that bring little money into the community, but suck out much to benefit faraway corporate shareholders. About the only jobs on the Pine Ridge reservation were with the tribal government, the police, and in schools. What the Oglallas lack is a thriving economy.

To make ends meet, Red Cloud signed up for a solar installer training course that changed his life. With his new skills he concluded there was no reason that his tribe’s native self-sufficiency couldn't be rebuilt. After all, Plains Indians have been embracing the sun for millennia. In their Sundance — the Oglalla’s most sacred rite — they dance ecstatically for four days, exposed to the elements, without sleep, food or water.

Red Cloud took more courses in alternative energy and green technology, while working off-reservation and expecting to run into other Native Americans among fellow solar installers. Finding none, he encouraged his tribal brothers to take similar training classes, but soon realized that they simply couldn't take the time. They needed to help their families survive, making handicrafts and gathering wild food.

So Red Cloud brought his knowledge home to Indian Country. By 2005 he was making his own solar devices; and the following year he launched Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center, set in the middle of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. As the second poorest  county in the US of about 40,000 souls spread across the South Dakota Badlands — 6 out of 10 can't even afford to connect to the electric grid — Pine Ridge is an unlikely place for energy innovation. Yet to Red Cloud and likeminded tribal leaders, solar is an opportunity to leapfrog past the 20th century energy economy to an energy-independent First Nation beyond the reach of oil shortages, price hikes, and the environmental harm caused by fossil fuel use.

For more than a decade, Red Cloud has been running Lakota Solar, an off-grid-skills school and solar factory. The heart of a business network that extends to a dozen other reservations, it employs locals to make solar panels; trailers complete with solar panels and an inverter that are small enough to be pulled by a compact car; and solar pumps that can move running water through a two-story building. Another popular product is the small solar furnace consisting of a plywood box with a plexiglas top and a 35 volt photovoltaic panel, which can blow a 190°F mass of air through a house, reducing heating costs in the brutally cold Dakota winter.

To date, over a thousand alumni have learned to build solar products in Red Cloud’s workshops—gaining practical skills that expand their economic and political options and provide a key to a new personal and communal future. Lakota Solar and the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center have become catalysts for an innovative economic network — one that employs locals and connects tribes, while building self-reliance and greater independence.

Ten years on, Red Cloud employs over a dozen people at around $12 an hour, well above minimum wage. The products they make are sold to other tribes who may add their own innovations. The nearby Rosebud Sioux buy their solar furnaces and photovoltaic arrays from Red Cloud and then install residential-scale wind and rooftop solar. Lakota Solar is now the main supplier for three other native-owned small businesses - two solar installation firms and a solar-powered paper recycling company.

Red Cloud’s alternative energy systems are designed to be small-scale and supplemental, offering a bit more power (or a bit more cash savings) to families that otherwise might fall short or go without. A mid-range residential energy system, which lasts about 30 years, sells for $3,500 — way below the $25-$35,000 cost of solar arrays typical of residential America. This inventor’s systems don't pay the entire electric bill, but they are affordable, save money and benefit High Plains reservations.

They also have a deep philosophical appeal that extends beyond the economic or environmental into the communal, and even the spiritual. Henry Red Cloud and his products inspire because they demonstrate that we all can — and should — be agents of change regardless of what we can afford.