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Tribal-driven energy grant invites communities to choose

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Tribal-driven energy grant invites communities to choose

Oct 03, 2023 | 6:30 am ET
By Renata Birkenbuel, ICT
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Tribal-driven energy grant invites communities to choose
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Beth Klemestrud, left, associate professor in chemical engineering at the University of North Dakota, guides Red Lake Middle School students through a science and engineering outreach program. (Photo courtesy of UND)

University of North Dakota officials say they expect a four-year $4 million Tribal Energy Sovereignty grant to empower tribal college leaders and communities to decide which sustainable energy systems best fit their people.

Dispensing with a paternalistic approach, two chemical engineering professors at UND plan to collaborate with a wide range of entities to create workable, local, renewable energy solutions, based on individual tribal needs. Even high school science, technology, engineering and math students will get a say in how best to plan energy systems for their future.

The National Science Foundation-funded grant will create jobs in local communities, too, depending on energy infrastructures individual tribes choose.

The tribal-driven grant is a first for such UND outreach projects, said Wayne Seames, grant project director, distinguished professor, inventor and internationally recognized expert in renewable energy/chemicals technologies.

The grant provides a huge opportunity for collaborators on the ground, said UND colleague Beth Klemetsrud, Brotherton and Oneida Tribes of Wisconsin, White Earth Nation native and associate professor in chemical engineering.

“Again and again,” said Klemetsrud, “we see that our Indigenous communities are the ones leading the change, leading the charge, and making the change for advocating for climate change and determining what’s best when educating Native students.”

Grant partners include Haskell Indian Nations University, Turtle Mountain Community College, Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College, the Tribal Nations Research Group, North Dakota State University and Kansas State University.

UND officials expect all partners will develop technologies and methods to provide sustainable, reliable and efficient engineering infrastructures and solutions for the main mission: tribal energy sovereignty.

However, Klemetsrud said, big research universities don’t have all the answers – that’s why tribal communities will have a giant say in the project.

“At research universities we have often failed to see that Native students are excelling at tribal colleges, that Native communities are pushing forward with renewable energy projects, that they are pushing forward to fight climate change, and if research wants to occur on tribal lands, we need to make sure that we are truly treating our Native colleagues and partners as experts,” she said.

Specifically, tribes can become less dependent on external energy sources like electricity, heating fuels, natural gas and transportation fuels like gasoline and diesel. If tribal leaders want to generate their own diesel fuel, they can do so in small, distributed systems or larger centralized systems.

“I see first-hand the excellent work that is being done at Turtle Mountain Community College and [Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College], the care and compassion they have for their students and we here at UND need to learn from them and respect their expertise in both educating and research concerning climate change,” Klemestrud said.

The project will reflect the values of tribal nations, said Ann Vallie, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa and grant center director at Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College Full-Circle Engineering Center of Excellence.

Possible technology solutions in tribal communities include thermal systems, storage, producing renewable fuels and power from waste materials and on- and off-grid systems.

Furthermore, the research takes into account the design, economics of such projects, ecological costs and sustainability “to ensure that meaningful knowledge is generated,” Vallie said. Social implications and perceptions will be studied, too.

Anita Frederick, Tribal Nations Research Group president, said her nonprofit group conducts tribal surveys, asking members what they are willing to pay for sustainable energy infrastructure. The tribal data center also ensures that tribes approve their own eventual energy initiatives.

Tribal Nations Research recruits online survey takers, but mostly works in the communities and meets people in-person when collecting data.

Frederick said all tribal communities in North Dakota value their vital tribal energy sovereignty and that developing solid infrastructure is key.

“We’re excited that we get to work with some new partners – Kansas State University is a new partner,” said Frederick. “It’s a big collaboration, so that’s important. This data will help … communities make decisions. We’re excited that data collection can be really meaningful for the tribes.”

As research starts rolling at the tribal colleges, Tribal Nations Research will develop K-12 education programming, such as teacher training in culturally relevant engineering designs, said Frederick.

The multi-year, $4 million grant may seem daunting, but all players will have a hand in using it.

“There’s a lot going on in this package,” Frederick added. “Of course, $4 million isn’t little, but looking at the big picture, it’s a big project.”

One problem to be solved: tribal communities often consist of rural, scattered populations with smaller-scale power, heat and fuel energy systems, according to UND, resulting in unreliability and less resiliency in the face of shifting weather patterns and severe climate change.

The trick is to transform such overwhelming short- and long-term environmental, economic and social issues into better systems.

That’s a big ask, but collaborators seem to be on board.

About one-quarter of the grant covers education and working directly with tribal community members to identify renewable energy solutions, said Klemestrud.

Collaborators will develop an “INgineering program” for college science, technology, engineering and math students to learn hands-on research and provide resources on how best to support Native students, who can attend the American Indians in Science and Engineering Society’s national conference.

“The emphasis,” she added, “will be on working with students within tribal colleges to provide hands-on research experiences and encourage them to continue advancing throughout their STEM degrees, whether at another tribal college or at one of our research institutions.”

For Seames, improving technology is key to reducing tribes’ reliance on fossil energies in the face of severe climate impact.

“Additionally, microgrid technologies have the ability to withstand more natural weather extremes and to be repaired more quickly than the large grid system that occupies most of the country,” added Seames.