Climate adaption through community empowerment
Whatever climate change continues to bring our world, I hope to see a larger focus on community efforts. Activating the socioeconomic agency of people on an individual and local level through education, job training, and increased standards of living can be hugely helpful in mitigating current and future climate impacts, especially in the wake of COVID-19
I grew up drawing and writing stories, aping poetry handed to me by teachers and family members, attending art camps, and discovering a love for the English language. When I reached college, however, I also found a love for the earth sciences—they spoke to my environmental consciousness and answered fundamental questions about our world that worried me: How is the earth changing? How will we change with it? Can we change with it? Inevitably (as it seems in retrospect), I became a Geology and English double major and was soon combining climate and culture in a realm of study I had never explored: environmental sociology.
This academic path led me to Native American and Indigenous Studies, where I was taught about the creation narratives of Indigenous Peoples that delineated land rights long before treaties and settler-nation “discoveries” carved country and state boundaries. I was also introduced to the strength and endurance of traditional ecological knowledge (TEK) and the impacts of climate change on Indigenous Peoples’ lands (and, by extension, identities). When I applied for a Fulbright research fellowship to study the social impacts of climate change on indigenous Sámi communities in Arctic Norway, it was with these lessons in mind.
InOurHands’ goal is to provide equitable energy access for marginalized and/or low-income communities, many of which are Indigenous
Before I left for Norway, however, I began working with a nascent non-profit, InOurHands, which was founded by fellow Amherst College alumni. InOurHands’ goal is to provide equitable energy access for marginalized and/or low-income communities, many of which are Indigenous. When asked to join the team, I recognized it as an amazing opportunity to address climate issues holistically while also mitigating and even reversing the environmental and economic degradation affecting struggling communities.
The charity’s model works like this:
- A community is identified by InOurHands based on aligned values, economic need, and a willingness to facilitate a renewable energy installation (i.e. garnering local support, working with the charity on permitting issues, identifying motivated individuals who want to participate and learn from the installation team, etc.).
- Our Director of Installations, Christopher P. Ellis, assesses the community’s energy needs and works with the community to decide the best ways (both logistically and culturally) to implement renewable energy and meet those needs.
- With public donations and grants, the charity funds the installation of the renewable energy system (e.g. solar panels, wind turbines, hydropower, etc.) in partnership with other non-profits and energy installation partners.
- The Director of Installations then works with qualified partners and community members to install the system, a process which both imparts usable skills in the electrical trade and provides job opportunities for individuals and local businesses.
- The community then owns 100% of its renewable energy system. Part of the training and installation relationship includes maintenance and repairs so that the system can be used in perpetuity. Ideally, the community agrees to enter into a power purchasing agreement with InOurHands, wherein the renewable energy system is paid back via a monthly installment significantly lower than the community’s previous energy bill.
- The recouped funds go back into the charity project budget and fund additional renewable energy systems in other marginalized communities. Thus, every donation made to the charity counts over and over as each renewable energy system is repaid.
The first community I worked with as part of InOurHands was the Oglala Lakota (Sioux) Nation on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota, the eighth largest reservation in the United States where nearly 40% of homes lack electricity, unemployment is at 86%, and 97% of community members are below the federal poverty line. Though the reservation receives a federal stipend, Pine Ridge lacks businesses where individuals can spend their money. This means that income from social security, welfare, and veterans’ benefits leave the reservation almost as quickly as they arrive.
The potential for harnessing renewable resources for energy independence is tremendous and, for many Oglala Lakota on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, represents another way to fight back against systematic, physical, and cultural oppression
However, what struck me most at the beginning of our relationship with Pine Ridge was the motivation propelling the reservation’s adoption of renewable energy. As part of the Great Plains, the region sees 226 days of sunshine a year and lies in the 3rd windiest state in the U.S. Thus, the potential for harnessing renewable resources for energy independence is tremendous and, for many Oglala Lakota, represents another way to fight back against systematic, physical, and cultural oppression.
I was humbled by the individuals on Pine Ridge already working towards energy independence when the community partnered with InOurHands in 2017. One such individual is Henry Red Cloud, who founded a 100% Native-owned solar heating company, Lakota Solar Enterprises (LSE), in 2004. Referred to as a “modern day Lakota warrior,” Henry Red Cloud (the direct fifth-generational descendant of Lakota war chief, Chief Red Cloud) works to provide jobs and low-cost heating to his community on the Pine Ridge Reservation while at the same time revitalizing and reconnecting the Oglala Lakota tribe with their culture, traditions, and the Earth. In 2008, LSE expanded to include the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center (RCREC), which broadened the scope of LSE’s solar energy training and manufacturing, providing renewable energy application education to tribes across the continent.
In 2018, InOurHands helped fund and install 20kW of solar panels for the KILI radio station, “The Voice of the Lakota Nation,” in partnership with Red Cloud Renewable, Lakota Solar, Thunder Valley CDC, Sunset Power Solutions, Remote Energy, Johnny Weiss Solar, and a number of dedicated volunteers. There are plans for a second installation on the Pine Ridge Girls’ School slated for the coming year/when the reservation is comfortable reopening in the wake of COVID-19. The implications of such a project hold practical but also cultural weight. As Henry Red Cloud has said, providing the Lakota community with access to renewable energy does more than improve their material lives. It has the potential to reconnect the community with the natural world, invoking traditions and practices that honor the Earth and its resources.
The Seeds hopes to provide not only a source of power, healthcare, and education for surrounding communities in Mozambique, but also energy sovereignty, youth empowerment, and personal growth for community members
Since this installation, I have expanded my renewable energy work to include a nonprofit based in the Netherlands, The Seeds, which is in the process of creating a self-sufficient, sustainable community center in Mozambique. The Seeds hopes to provide not only a source of power, healthcare, and education for surrounding communities, but also energy sovereignty, youth empowerment, and personal growth for community members. The extent of the renewable energy project in Mozambique will depend on several factors:
- How much space is available for a photovoltaic installation? Are we using roof or ground mounted solar panels?
- Is there shade around the mounting site?
- How much distance is there between the panels and the grid interconnection? (This is relevant if the panels are connected to a net-metered grid, otherwise, an off-grid battery system will need to be developed.)
- How much of an electric load do we need to accommodate? Can the yearly energy usage of the building can be calculated (using past energy bills) to gauge to the necessary size of the installation?
- Is cost a limiting factor? How much funding is needed for the size and type of system we want to install, which, ideally, would be something close to 100kW?
- What are the training costs for local involvement?
- Can we design the system so that it accommodates modularization (i.e. the ability to add panels to the system once cost-per-watt is determined after the initial installation)?
As our team builds project budgets, we think about the aspects above, as well as the cost of tools, travel, safety equipment, shipping, permitting and other factors that drive up the price of installations within this charity model. For example, an off-grid system in Mozambique that accommodates 50-100kW could cost anywhere from $350,000 to $700,000. The final cost will depend not only on the size of the system but also on the community’s ability to sustain that system, which is why the Director of Installations includes a training program in the project model.
Designing, completing, and maintaining a renewable energy project on a community’s own terms is a crucial aspect of putting power back into the hands of people who need it most
Ultimately, every project is different because every community is different. This is something I was prepared for after speaking with multiple Indigenous Nations about their energy needs, and also after my work in Norway studying the local context of environmental stressors and changes. But what has always been clear is that designing, completing, and maintaining a renewable energy project on a community’s own terms is a crucial aspect of putting power back into the hands of people who need it most. An installation’s outcome and impact can affect not just the economic sphere of our partnered communities’ lives but also their cultural identities. In all cases, I want my work in the environmental sector to strengthen and reaffirm these identities, to braid technology with ecological knowledge, and to help reclaim sovereignty, quality of life, and land rights that have been dishonored, or, in some cases, actively degraded.
Whatever climate change continues to bring our world, I hope to see a larger focus on community efforts. Activating the socioeconomic agency of people on an individual and local level through education, job training, and increased standards of living can be hugely helpful in mitigating current and future climate impacts, especially in the wake of COVID-19. I am certain that a collaborative effort between different bodies of knowledge—TEK, technological innovation, policy, climatology, environmental sociology, etc.—will be essential to successful climate adaptation.
Malinda (Lindy) Labriola is a graduate of Amherst College, where she studied English, Geology, and Native American & Indigenous Studies. She has worked in the environmental sector since 2013 with the climate documentary series Years of Living Dangerously, as a researcher for Columbia University's Center for Climate Systems Research, and as a Fulbright fellow in Arctic Norway. She now works as a writer, illustrator, and editor based in New York and Western Massachusetts and continues to contribute as a project developer for the renewable energy charity, InOurHands, as well as the Netherlands-based nonprofit, The Seeds.
Francisco Zubeldía is a Chemical Engineer from the UNMdP in Argentina. He has postgraduate degrees in physics and energy and is now a Fulbright scholar getting an MSc in Engineering Management at Trine University in Angola, Indiana. He is the Content Manager for the 'Energy Inputs' series of research articles on Fulbrighter.