Partnership responds to solar energy opportunity in American Indian Community

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- In the peak of the hot summer sun, a small but important step forward was made on the journey towards a sustainable future. In summer 2017, 14 Penn State students, faculty and alumni traveled to Montana to install a solar energy system on the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation. The system will defray the energy costs of a community center and emergency shelter. The system will also provide a basis for backup power in the event of an emergency.

“This project offered me the opportunity to see and experience the impacts of renewable energy where it is most needed,” Mahsa Safari, architectural engineering doctoral candidate, said. “We are privileged to have been invited here and to contribute to this effort.”

The Northern Cheyenne Tribe has been voting against coal development in their community for generations. Located in southeast Montana, near the Little Bighorn Battlefield, the small reservation sits atop a massive vein of high-quality coal which is embedded close to the Earth’s surface. The coal, likely worth billions of dollars, is a tantalizing resource. Year after year, initiatives are put forth to develop the coal and bring some relief to local economic conditions. But, year after year, the sacred oath of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe is upheld.

“It is a very divisive issue in our community,” Otto Braidedhair, a Northern Cheyenne tribal member and director of the Northern Cheyenne Fire Department, said. “It is understandable to want the economic development that might come from coal, but our ancestors took an oath to protect the land we live on.”

In fall 2015, Conrad Fisher, a member of the Tribal Council, pointed out that after voting “no” to coal development for so long, it was time to vote “yes” for something. So they took action. In the shadow of the drama and conflict over the Dakota Access pipeline at Standing Rock, the Northern Cheyenne Tribe launched an initiative to embrace solar energy through a resolution passed unanimously by the Tribal Council. Knowing time was of the essence, the tribe also sought advice on how to get the initiative moving. 

“Penn State has been building sustainable projects in our community for a long time,” Braidedhair said. “They are a trusted voice. When the tribe started looking into solar, we asked them for advice.”

David Riley, professor of architectural engineering and director of the GridSTAR Center at Penn State has worked with the Northern Cheyenne Tribe since 2001 and was honored to receive the call. 

“The idea of a solar initiative in the heart of coal country is compelling,” Riley said. “But it also provides an opportunity to make a statement. Since electric is expensive here, and the utility, Tongue River Electric Cooperative, has a favorable net metering policy, solar also makes economic sense.”

Riley’s team immediately reached out to its contacts at SolarCity, a subsidiary company of Tesla, Inc., a company the team has worked on multiple solar education programs with.  

“The way they responded was profound,” Riley said. “Not only did they offer to provide solar equipment to the tribe, they sent some of the top employees in the company to Montana in June 2016 to build the first solar energy system on the home of Elsie Weaselbear.” 

Five months later SolarCity installed a large photovoltaic array on the roof of the tribal building.

Chéri Olf, workforce strategist at Tesla, Inc., helped plan the installations and coordinate the contributions of SolarCity. 

“The project evoked a lot of enthusiasm from all levels of SolarCity,” she said. “We help install solar energy systems all over the world through our GivePower initiative, but this was the unique opportunity to support an American Indian community. The Northern Cheyenne tribe members are displaying leadership and vision and we were honored to be a part of the effort.”

Simultaneously, Penn State students installed two additional solar systems in the Northern Cheyenne communities of Ashland and Birney. In each case, SolarCity donated equipment and members of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe had a chance to contribute to the installations.

“I learned a lot. Solar is important to our community and our future, and we need to learn how to do this,” said Steve Brady Jr., a member of the Northern Cheyenne Tribe.

The new systems have already helped to promote awareness and interest in solar energy, but the transformation that is needed will take a much bigger effort. Working with leaders of the tribe, SolarCity and Penn State developed a plan to broadly embrace solar energy, create jobs and stimulate economic development in the Northern Cheyenne community.

The plan has three parts. For starters, elders in the community will be the first to receive solar systems on their homes so that they can gain some experience and confidence in solar energy. Next, the Northern Cheyenne will seek opportunities for members of the tribe to learn how to plan and install solar systems in the community. Finally, the tribe will seek to partner with solar energy companies to develop solar energy in a way that will create jobs and stimulate the economy.

“When solar energy is deployed in communities like this, it tends to have a significant impact,” Riley said. “The money a family used to spend on electricity can now be used for food, medicine, and in other ways that strengthen the economy.”

Since 2001, Riley has traveled to Montana with students through the American Indian Housing Initiative at Penn State while also developing new solar energy courses and programs. As the program continues, many students return to Montana as alumni to support the program. 

"My first visit to Montana was six years ago as a student. The experience was transformative. I plan to continue returning for years to come," said Emily Stein, a 2014 Penn State graduate in architecture.

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Last Updated September 07, 2017