Henry Red Cloud: ‘Native Communities Are the Saudi Arabia of Solar’

Since 1995, Henry Red Cloud has been pushing solar energy as the future of Indian country.

“With all 568 federally recognized Tribes, there’s 61 gigawatts of power available in solar,” he told Native Business Magazine™. “That’s enough power to run the whole country. We’re not talking megawatts, and we’re not talking kilowatts – we’re talking gigawatts.”

Red Cloud is the founder and owner of Lakota Solar Enterprises (LSE), based on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. One of the first 100 percent Native-owned and operated renewable energy companies in the nation, LSE employs Tribal members to manufacture and install efficient solar air heating systems for Native American families across the Great Plains.

The 61 gigawatts number was a statistic that Red Cloud came back to repeatedly as an exclamation point on how much potential Indian Country can unlock by embracing solar. And he says that given the areas of the country where many Tribes are located, what was once a rough and inhospitable terrain now has untapped sources of energy that can transform Indian Country for the better.

“We were put on areas where it’s the sunniest, and the hottest, and the windiest, and the most brutal weather,” Red Cloud said. “The government put us on the most undesirable pieces of land that can’t be farmed and there’s no sustainability.”

“Over time, now here we are in the 21st century, and we have a viable commodity in solar with 61 gigawatts of power to run the whole country,” Red Cloud continued. “The treaties put us on these undesirable pieces of land, and suddenly these areas will make Native communities the Saudi Arabia of solar.”

Henry Red Cloud is a direct 5th generation descendant of Chief Red Cloud – one of the last Lakota war chiefs and one of the most famous Native Americans in history. Today, Red Cloud sees himself as a 21st Century Lakota Warrior, bringing green technology and employment to Tribal communities.

“Here where we live, we’re in an economic turmoil situation,” Red Cloud said. “There’s no jobs and there’s nothing happening.”

Because of that, and because of the housing issues he saw in his community, Red Cloud started to get involved in natural building systems, which led to his interest in renewable and sustainable energy. Solar power, he says, seemed like the best thing to do at the time.

“I was like the lone solar warrior going down this green path,” Red Cloud said. “I was doing solar when it wasn’t cool, but I just kept plugging away at it and learning everything that I could under the sun, so to speak, about solar energy.”

That opened the door to a manufacturing facility in 2003 that produced a simple and affordable standalone solar furnace that operates completely off the power grid. These solar furnaces consist of 32 feet of heating surface, which is mounted and installed next to the south side of the house, where it can absorb heat from the sun. Red Cloud says that they are so efficient, they can get hot even with minimum sunlight. A second, 35-watt solar photovoltaic panel provides power to a direct current blower which circulates warm air from the furnace throughout the house. Today, the technology also contains the ability to charge devices via USB ports, as well as a LED lighting system.

In other words, Red Cloud says, “if the grid should go down, which can happen, people still have heat in their homes, they can charge their handheld devices, and they have lighting at night.”

Families using LSE’s solar technology have seen their monthly utility bills cut by 20-25 percent, and with more than 2,000 houses currently using the technology, the cumulative savings that have been attained to date are substantial.

Red Cloud’s efforts to bring renewable energy to Tribal lands have not gone without notice. He’s received numerous accolades for his thought leadership and innovation, including being selected as a White House Champion of Change for Solar Deployment under the Obama Administration (2014) and one of Fast Company’s Most Creative People (2015), among numerous other awards and recognitions. Most recently, he received an MIT Solve Fellowship Award, which allowed him to spend a week at MIT inside the D-Lab, touring the campus, and building a partnership with other MIT experts.

Over the long term, Red Cloud says he wants to continue working to develop solar technologies and ultimately leverage Tribes’ nation within a nation status to work with other countries via free trade agreements.

“We can start manufacturing Japan’s solar panels right here on the reservation,” he said. “Right now, we’re connecting all the dots, but this is going to set a precedent for all 568 federally recognized Tribes, so they can start becoming a part of free trade. It’s an inherent right and it’s a sovereignty issue.”

“I’m working on this as a sovereignty issue because of the potential 61 gigawatts of power throughout Indian country,” Red Cloud continued.