Collaboration shines light on solar possibilities

picture of United Tribes solar team

A collaboration between United Tribes Technical College (UTTC) and Lightspring, LLC, is shining light on the possibilities of consumer-owned solar systems, while helping train an emerging workforce.

Since 2019, the tribal college and solar-based business have worked together to provide three unique opportunities for hands-on learning. UTTC and Lightspring held their first solar training in the summer of 2019.

“We had a lot of people who wanted us to install solar, but we had no installers. And, we couldn’t find electricians who had much solar experience, so we thought, ‘We’re going to have to train a workforce.’ And then, United Tribes said, ‘You can do a training here.’ And it was a perfect fit,” says Jim Kambeitz, co-founder of Lightspring, LLC. And so, they went to work.

“[Lightspring] developed the curriculum. UTTC provided a lot of the technical things and the supplies and the space. And then, Indigenized Energy stepped in, and we had a mutual friend in Minnesota, Bob Blake, who owns the only Indigenous-owned solar company in Minnesota, Solar Bear,” says Kambeitz.

UTTC, Lightspring, Indigenized Energy and Solar Bear combined efforts to deliver a free four-day training program that would equip attendees with the skills necessary to install solar products. It didn’t take long to determine that one training would not be enough. Program participants were energized and wanted more.

Solar Roller

“After the first training, everybody said, ‘Okay, we want to build something now. What can we do?’ And someone said, ‘I want to build one of those solar trailers that can get power to remote places without using a generator,’” says Kambeitz.

In August 2019, participants returned to UTTC. In four days, they assembled and wired what would become known as the Solar Roller. UTTC donated the trailer and many of the supplies, and Indigenized Energy donated the ten solar panels that power the mobile unit. The 310-watt panels provide 3.1 kilowatts (kW), enough to power a small house.

“Having a mobile unit was first and foremost in our thought process,” says UTTC Career and Technical Education Director Sheridan McNeil. “We wanted something useful and eco-friendly that we could take to powwows, fairs and events. We wanted it to be something very cool that people could see and experience.”

UTTC unveiled the Solar Roller at its 50th annual International Powwow, where it was used to power the arena lights. Throughout the event, people of all ages stopped by to charge their phones and get an up-close look at the mobile solar unit.
“It really piques your curiosity when you see it in action,” says McNeil. “We had four-year-olds and grandparents who were going inside to see how it works.”

In the future, UTTC plans to use the Solar Roller to educate people on the value of renewable energy. As part of its community outreach program, UTTC’s Intertribal Resource and Research Center (IRRC) will take the mobile solar unit to schools and events across the Northern Plains.

“Right now, the presentation is targeted to a high school or older audience,” says McNeil. “But, boy, our little ones are hungry for knowledge, and they’re just little sponges that soak up any kind of knowledge you throw at them. I would really love to see the information accessible to people of all ages.”

Skills Center

In 2020, UTTC and Lightspring asked themselves, “What’s next?” After learning about the Tribal Solar Accelerator Fund, a tribal-led initiative that provides funding for renewable energy projects, they quickly applied for a $100,000 grant, which would allow them to take on their largest solar project yet.

Installed at UTTC’s Skills Center last summer, the ground-mounted solar system includes 60 400-watt panels, which can provide up to 24 kW of electricity at a time, enough energy to power at least six houses. It also includes 12 batteries, which provide 34.2 kilowatt hours (kWh) of energy storage. Since Sept. 2020, the solar system has produced nine megawatt hours, or 9,000 kWh, of energy.

UTTC is using the solar system to reduce its peak demand, lower its carbon footprint and provide learning opportunities for its students. “Since this is an educational center, everything is designed to have an educational component,” says Kambeitz. “So, we have a monitor that allows people to see how much power is being produced, what’s going into the batteries, what’s being used at the moment, and what’s being stored for later. We wanted everything to be an educational experience.”

The future

McNeil hopes that one day, UTTC will be able to adopt a curriculum focused on developing the renewable energy workforce. While she has full support to pursue the new curriculum, funding and space are currently limited. “When you educate someone, you’re not only educating that person, you’re also educating generations to come. They’ll pass down that knowledge, and children will see them doing this work,” says McNeil. “As a tribal college, this kind of work is so important. Culturally, we have a
strong calling to care for the earth and each other.

There is a Dakota and Lakota saying, ’Mitakuye Owasin,’ which means, ‘We are all related.’ And that goes into everything. We’re related to the birds, to the animals and to the earth. The earth is our foundation. This is where our life comes from. So, I think as a tribal college, keeping all of those teachings in everything we do, whether its curriculum or activities, is important. And, it’s a beautiful thing.”


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