Entrepreneur hopes solar can help combat poverty on S.D. reservation 

Source: Krysti Shallenberger, E&E reporter • Posted: Tuesday, June 23, 2015

If you want to find a story of poverty on South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation for the Oglala Lakota nation, you don’t have to look far, says Nick Tilsen, the visionary and CEO behind the nonprofit Thunder Valley Community Development Corp.

But if you want to uncover hope and resilience, look no further than the nonprofit’s breaking ground ceremony for its “regenerative” community today.

The ceremony is the first step in the first phase of a sustainable neighborhood powered by solar panels, wind energy and strategically designed dwellings aimed at reducing monthly energy bills and boost efficiency.

All of these ideas converge to battle — and hopefully eliminate — high poverty levels and unemployment rates on one of the nation’s poorest reservations.

“It was always our intent to create a systems change,” Tilsen told EnergyWire. “So the fact we wanted to change systems to work toward a regenerative community” was a natural outflow as the corporation evolved since its founding in 2007.

Tilsen, alongside several like-minded Lakotas, founded the nonprofit to open doors to their fellow Lakotas for jobs and building a sustainable community.

The strategy outlined on its website lists a “theory of change” that blends in people, prosperity and the planet.

And one way to act on the theory of change included constructing a “regenerative” community. With an estimated $60 million price tag, the 34-acre project near the town of Porcupine could take 10 or more years to build. And part of that also requires persuading federal, state and tribal agencies to join in Thunder Valley’s vision, Tilsen added.

“It’s been a very long process,” Tilsen said. He estimated it took four or five years to navigate the tangle of financing. “I think some of the challenge is getting people to believe that a vision like this could happen; one thing, being at the bottom … there’s only one way: up.”

Rising from the bottom

The $9.5 million phase one step is set to build 21 single-family homes alongside a few community development dwellings constructed over a three-year period. These buildings are designed with energy efficiency and renewable energy in mind, Tilsen said, so they can slash costly monthly bills and also uphold their cultural tradition of using the Earth’s resources wisely.

The average monthly energy bill for a home on the reservation amounts to $200 to $300. Using solar panels paired with using a “passive solar” design could reduce such bills by about 60 percent, Tilsen said. Passive solar design means the homes are built with the sun’s position in mind to use its power to help heat the home during the winter and ensure it doesn’t overheat during the summer. Tilsen said each home would have a 5-kilowatt solar system paired with a battery for backup electricity.

Tilsen said Thunder Valley is also batting about various ways to heat the homes. Options include either solar thermal heating or a heat radiant setup. Battery systems would back up their solar and, hopefully, wind energy from small-scale wind turbines, Tilsen added.

But buying and installing renewable energy systems requires lots of partnerships with companies, and donations of said solar panels and battery-storage systems.

Tilsen declined to comment on partnerships, adding that nothing was in the bag just yet. But he said his plan also includes each participant paying a monthly $5 to $10 fee that would be set aside to purchase new battery systems once the original ones wear out.

So far, the community in its first phase will shelter about 147 people, with the single-family homes being built around the idea of five to seven occupants per house.

Altogether, the community will house around 1,000 people. At least 16,906 Native Americans call the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation home, out of a total of 18,834 residents, according to 2010 U.S. census data. Tilsen said the community is open to all reservation residents, indigenous or not.

Forging partners

One ally Tilsen has found is the South Dakota National Guard. He first approached the National Guard in 2014 for help in building the community project.

Spokesman Maj. Anthony Deiss said the Thunder Valley project fit into the National Guard’s Golden Coyote program, which brings together servicemen from the United Kingdom, Canada and Denmark to train alongside each other. Training together also means working on collaborative engineering projects, Deiss told EnergyWire. Many of those projects reside on South Dakota’s reservations. Thunder Valley’s community plan is one of them.

Part of the building designs includes a gazebo-type structure that links between two community buildings and is strong enough to hold up solar panels, said Capt. Mitch Nachtigall, community project manager for the South Dakota National Guard.

But timing and a last-minute design change have put that partnership on hold until the South Dakota National Guard’s two-week training period next year, Nachtigall told EnergyWire.

The South Dakota National Guard still plans to assist Thunder Valley in its plans, he added.

“We do hope to, absolutely,” Nachtigall said. “We’ll be in attendance at the groundbreaking ceremony, [which] will continue to show that we are committed to discuss future projects.”

‘Vision for the future’

Tilsen envisions his idea to stretch far beyond the reservation borders, and even beyond one culture.

But it had to start with just one.

“We look at the root cause of poverty,” Tilsen said. “Why are reservations struggling the way they are? And what it boiled down to was that political, financial and legal infrastructure creates the physical infrastructure that allows development to happen.”

Those conditions didn’t exist, Tilsen believed.

“So why Pine Ridge?” Tilsen asked, “There’s no political, legal and financial infrastructure … so by creating an actual development, it became a rallying point for the community.”

And, he hopes, it will become a place where, instead of finding a story of poverty, people will see resilience.

“That’s not the story that we tell, because that’s the story that’s been told over and over,” Tilsen said. “I see a bunch of motivated people, young people, [who] believe in [the] far-reaching impacts of what we’re doing … we believe that people should be looking at us.”