On his way back from Oklahoma City, Henry Red Cloud, owner of Lakota Solar Enterprises and creator of Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center, took some time to talk to me about renewable energy projects happening among Native American tribes. Red Cloud, a respected Lakota elder and a fifth-generation descendent of Chief Red Cloud, started creating interest and opportunities for renewable energy, especially solar, when he moved back to the reservation in Pine Ridge, S.D., 12 years ago. This led to him creating his renewable energy business and a training center.
“I always wanted to move back, and I had high hopes of finding a home and a job,” Red Cloud says.
After both of those searches turned up empty, Red Cloud found his own way to fix the problem. While building his own home, Red Cloud started Googling renewable energy. He was looking for an alternative to the wood burning he did in the winter and found an air heater. Then he dismantled the heater to see how it worked and stumbled on the idea of making his own solar air heaters. Red Cloud used his curiosity and 16 years of experience as a steel worker to solve both the home and job problems.
“I knew this would create savings and economic development,” Red Cloud says.
But Red Cloud didn’t want to keep this new idea to himself. He started his own company, Lakota Solar Enterprises, and started working with other Native Americans. His company is one of the first fully owned and operated Native American renewable energy companies in the nation. At first, Red Cloud and his crew used pre-manufactured solar panels and built the supporting structure, but by 2007 the company was producing its own solar collector panels.
The solar heaters Lakota Solar Enterprises creates work as a supplement to other heating such as wood burning. The solar systems from Red Cloud’s company circulate the air through the house using a squirrel cage blower. The whole system uses about as much energy as a 50-watt light bulb and can save 20 to 35 percent on heating costs. And with do-it-yourself kits selling for $1,500 and installation within a 200 mile radius for $2,000, the systems pay for themselves in three to four years. Red Cloud said the lifespan of the system is about 30 years, and he has a friend who has owned a solar heating system for 27 years and has never had to do any maintenance.
With such great success, Red Cloud wanted to create more jobs and pass down renewable energy knowledge to future generations. That’s why two years ago he started the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center to serve as a hub for renewable energy education.
“I needed to travel great distances to get training, so I made a pact with myself that I would start to train Native Americans in renewable energy,” he said.
The most recent training session was earlier this month, and trained a total of 82 “solar warriors,” as Red Cloud calls them. Red Cloud teaches Native Americans on solar water heaters, solar electric systems, straw bale building, wind breaks, organic gardening and small-scale wind power. The next sessions are coming up. Residential wind turbine training starts July 7 and solar training is the second week in August.
“Once I researched renewable energy, I just really got enthused about it,” Red Cloud says. “It was taking concepts from the 1970s and using 21st century technology.”
Now Red Cloud wants to continue spreading the knowledge of renewable energy to other tribes in the United States. So far he has talked to people from 14 tribes, but he says he has tribes calling him every day wanting to know more. That's why Red Cloud was in Oklahoma City; he was teaching members of the Potawatomi tribe. By going and setting up solar energy systems, Red Cloud creates interest and awareness about the renewable energy options out there. So far, four of the 14 tribes Red Cloud has spoken to have solar energy systems, as many as 150 to 200 total. Ideally, Red Cloud would like to talk to members of all 564 tribes in the United States.
“The sun plays a huge role in our ceremonies, songs and culture,” Red Cloud said. “This is a way of creating hope and economic development.”
Above: Henry Red Cloud gives Cheyenne River trainees pointers for installing a support stand for a solar heating system. The solar systems are manufactured by Lakota Solar Enterprises' manufacturing crew on the Pine Ridge Reservation. Photos by Earl Dotter (top) and Trees, Water & People (bottom).