Tribal Renewable Energy

Solar Furnaces

A solar air heater at the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center.

A solar furnace at the Renewable
Energy Center.

The sun plays a central role in Native American culture and spirituality. Trees, Water & People's Tribal Renewable Energy Program uses the power of the sun to heat homes of Native American families struggling to stay warm, providing a culturally appropriate solution to energy poverty in reservation communities.

The bitter winters take a terrible toll on many reservation families living in inadequate housing. Where over 60% live below the federal poverty line, electric heat and propane may be financially out of reach. Annually, families can spend up to 70% of their total income to heat their homes. Temperatures can plunge to 40 below zero and ice can form on the inside of walls.

Trees, Water & People's supplemental solar air heating units are an inexpensive, simple to use, and environmentally sound way to bring comfort to reservation families suffering in the winter cold. The units are built on South Dakota's Pine Ridge Reservation by Native-owned and operated Lakota Solar Enterprises (LSE), providing a source of employment, economic activity, and pride.

The furnaces themselves are technologically straightforward. The main component of each unit is a four-by-eight-foot solar collector panel. The panel contains baffles to direct air flow and is backed by a specialized, heat-absorbing metal film. The baffles and absorber plate are covered by a sheet of special solar glass and surrounded by a metal frame. This solar panel is mounted and installed next to the south side of the house, where it absorbs heat from the sun. The system is connected to the house by two air ducts: supply and return. Whenever the air inside the collector panel is warmer than the temperature set on the heating system's thermostat, a blower inside the system turns on and warm air is pushed into the house. The blower fan is the system's only moving part.

Since the program began in 2003, more than 820 supplemental solar heating systems have been built at Pine Ridge, Rosebud, and other reservation communities. In 2009, LSE began selling solar heating units to other tribes. Members of these tribes visit the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center, where they learn about the theory and practice of solar heating. These newly-certified Solar Technicians then return to assemble and install the heating systems for families in their own communities.

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The Lakota Solar Enterprises crew installs a solar air heater on a Colorado Homeless Families home. Leo White Bear installs a solar air heater on Navajo Reservation home. A Rosebud solar air heater trainee completes an installation. View more photos