Going solar in ND: Tribal communities embrace solar

Coulee Luger with Native Brother, Inc., and James Kambeitz with LightSpring hold a panel for installation on a solar construction project at Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College in New Town last fall. Submitted Photo

Tribal communities are embracing solar energy for its potential to reduce energy costs and create jobs.

Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College in New Town is in the process of completing installation of a 50-kilowatt solar panel system on its 65,000-square-foot main campus building. Solar voltaic heaters, with a capacity of about 7 kilowatts, were installed on the campus’ cultural center in late 2022.

The solar opportunity arose with a $200,000 grant from the Tribal Solar Accelerated Fund. The college is working with North Dakota installation companies, Lightspring Solar and Native Brothers, and partnering with Mountrail-Williams Electric Cooperative, which has been helping with equipment installation and other aspects of making all the electrical connections mesh with its system.

The motivation to install solar came from having a sustainability program and an environmental science program at the college, which opens the door to education as a component of the project, said Jennifer Janecek-Hartman, vice president of campus services.

“Not only is it just good sense business-wise and energy-wise for the college, it’s also got the education piece to it,” she said.

Students at Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish have the chance to work with Native Brothers or Lightspring and learn the business, filling a need for workers and entrepreneurs in the growing solar industry, Janecek-Hartman said. Environmental science and pre-engineering and sustainability students will be able to do research, she added.

“We also look at it as a way of showing other options for energy in this area,” she said. “In this area we’re heavy fossil fuels, because we are in the heart of the Bakken. We are just looking at alternatives because we all know that fossil fuels are finite.”

An energy monitor in the lobby of the main campus building will show visitors how much solar energy is being produced, used and placed back into the grid.

“For us the return on investment is more the investment in the community and helping show others in the community what solar can do. So it’s not just our dollars. For us, it’s, it’s being that example,” Janecek-Hartman said.

“Our dream is that we would be able to help elders out with heating and cooling costs, get every tribal building to have solar,” she said. “We want to see it grow, so it’s an option, so we can prolong the fossil fuels that we have become so used to as a society and a world.”

Wes Davis, Lightspring Solar project manager, has been working with the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa to bring solar energy to the Turtle Mountain Reservation.

Before starting his own solar energy business, Davis served as facilities manager and infrastructure development officer for Turtle Mountain Community College, where he was involved in creating a mechanical system that was 90% sustainable through geothermal and wind and included various smart systems to improve efficiency.

Teaming up with Lightspring, his goal has been to bring renewable energy to communities that otherwise cannot afford it.

“We’re at that point, I believe, where we can actually start applying for grants, community grants, to invest,” Davis said. “The economic stimulus package from the Biden administration has given us the opportunity to build better infrastructure, with smarter mechanical systems to make it more efficient, which means it opens up the door for homeowners, contractors and business owners to apply for these grants — and tribal governments.

“It’s not such a huge risk now because the paybacks are huge. You can really make a difference now,” he said. “I believe this year, 2023, is going to be a huge leap year for renewable energy on tribal nations. And I just want to be a part of that and I want to give back to my people.”

The projects likely to move forward in 2023 are those that are ready with a strategic plan, Davis said. He said some projects will kick off in the first part of 2023, but a large focus for the tribes will be on investing in grant writers and community planners to develop strategic plans and start setting up for future infrastructure development. He foresees the real growth in installations occurring in 2024-25.

“The majority of the renewable energy is going to be solar because it’s easy. Now, it’s not easy manual labor to install solar but it’s easy access. It is easy to fix, and it doesn’t take a Ph.D. to design it and install it, which means that it’s feasible for community members, for your homeowners,” Davis said. “So I believe solar will be the meat-and-potatoes of the renewable energy movement that’s happening in North Dakota.”

However, he noted the solar infrastructure will need maintenance if an economy is to be built around renewable energy.

“Part of that strategic community plan would be not only to understand your community, but also understand what resources you have and what type of resources you’re going to need to maintain and upkeep these types of innovative renewable energy sources,” he said. “Those players have to all be in line for it to be successful.”


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)
Are you a paying subscriber to the newspaper? *

Starting at $4.62/week.

Subscribe Today