Building a sustainable future through the integration of Indigenous knowledge and photovoltaics

Above view of an agrivoltaics system in Colorado.
Above view of an agrivoltaics system in Colorado.

Aaron Bugaj

Related Topics:
Agriculture, Conservation, Energy, Food, Renewable Energy, Solar, Storyfest 2024, Sustainability, Water

Through Indigenous ways of knowing, and self-knowledge of who we are as stewards of Newe Sogobia (Mother Earth), the original people of what is known as the ‘Americas,’ have made efficient use of resources through the management of agricultural practices, fire regimes, land use, etc. since time immemorial. Having understood this from an early age, I spent my youth attending ceremonies that helped me connect to the natural world through cultural teachings. My name is Bahnwahntze. I am Newe (Shoshone), and I grew up on the South Fork Indian Reservation in Northeastern Nevada. My upbringing involved spending summers in Northern California, both in urban areas and on the Round Valley Reservation near Covelo, CA. Growing up, my parents, raised on reservations, taught me that nature and people worked together as one. While living in the urban setting I was being exposed to an ideology that my peers around me weren’t. This helped me to understand and appreciate the symbiotic relations that give us life. I began integrating my understanding into the Western science teaching I was receiving. 

My interest in technology began at an early age. As a traditional powwow dancer, I was used to hearing loud music, so at home I began learning how to connect additional speakers to my stereo and also how the amps affected the output of the speakers. I would also practice my dance steps by watching videos of other dancers. To watch the videos, I had to switch connections from cable television to a DVD player. Soon my family began to notice my interest in technology and would have me help them with their technological difficulties. After I graduated high school, instead of going into a STEM academic program, I went into a technical program at D-Q University, a tribal university that offered a technical certificate in cable networking. In the program, I learned how to properly install cable networks for television including fiber optics for the internet. Having proven myself successful in installing cable networks, I felt stunted in my personal expression. Trapped in a cycle of work and little rest, ignoring my instinct to be on the land, I was forced to listen to that instinct when I was injured at work. My story truly begins once I allowed myself to reeducate and start a new career. 

Going into academics having already been in a career for several years, I had no idea what I wanted to do or what kind of research was happening. My mentality at that point was just to get into a program where I could learn office skills, as my injury left me with sedentary work restrictions. I had always liked plants, so I started looking into agriculture programs. What caught my attention was an agricultural business and education program at a local community college.

This program was designed to transfer me into an agricultural science program at a 4-year institution, but I had only wanted to get my 2-year degree so I could begin working right away. Fortunately, I was able to get into a research internship during my first semester. While the experience was a great introduction to research, it was the connections I made through the internship that allowed me to progress as a researcher.

Soon after I was invited to another fellowship where I presented my first inquisition poster. It was during these sessions I began to notice research that was being done within tribal communities. My perspective on experimentations that had occurred on tribal lands and within tribal communities had mostly been negative; due to the history of the government performing malicious acts on Indigenous people and their lands in the name of science. During the conference, I began to learn about different organizations that promoted Indigenous scientists. This led to a path where I am currently in my academic career. Not only did this program focus on Traditional Ecological Knowledge, but it broke me free from the negative connotations of research within Indigenous communities. After this incredible experience, I decided to apply to graduate school so that I could contribute to the science benefiting Indigenous communities.

I was introduced to agrivoltaics (AV) through my recent internship which took me to the Navajo Nation. I had been seeking out an internship that would allow me to work within a tribal nation as none of my previous internships had allowed me to. I was unfamiliar with the topic, but I was interested in the program that was presented to me. I learned that AV is an emerging innovative agricultural system that places photovoltaic (PV) panels within existing agricultural areas and vice versa. It is an integrated agricultural and energy production system that enhances water conservation and is the very definition of what is known as a food, energy, and water nexus.

During this program, I had the opportunity to work at an agricultural experiment station. I worked closely with the research director who made me aware of opportunities with a new graduate program they were offering. My mentor at the time had wanted to place sheep under the PV panels but I expressed my interest in traditional agriculture practices like intercropping to begin the project. So began my journey into AV systems and the Three Sisters Garden system.  

Being able to make contributions back to society in a way that promotes Indigenous knowledge is one thing, having a project that allows me to go directly into tribal communities and promote localized community growth is another. On the Navajo Nation, it is fairly well known that a significant number of households are not connected to any kind of grid. Understanding that AV contributes to built environment as off-grid AV systems will greatly benefit remote communities and give them opportunities to power additional agricultural infrastructure such as greenhouses.

When discussing AV and how it contributes to built environment with my research director, Kevin Lombard, Ph. D., professor of horticulture at the New Mexico State University (NMSU) Agricultural Science Center at Farmington; stated that “there is increased interest in urban built environments and having greenhouses closer to consumers.” He then went into how the greenhouses are essentially closed systems and mentioned, “Combining that with solar panels to artificial lighting or supplemental lighting makes a lot of sense”. Not only will AV systems make energy available to agricultural equipment, but they will also have the opportunity to make beneficial use of the land under the PV panels. Giving community members the knowledge of how to manage the space under the panels will allow them to grow different crops.

One thing the pandemic exposed was our need for food sovereignty and increased localization of resources. Part of my graduate research project is to use the energy produced to support an off-grid greenhouse; this encourages me to continue to push the topic of incorporating Indigenous agricultural practices that will contribute to the sustainable component of a controlled environment system. Israel Joukhdar, a senior research scientist at NMSU College of Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences, stated “That’s the great thing about building for the future, it’s not that we have to totally transform and tear down all our buildings and do all this stuff, but doing very small things can make a huge change […] a small change goes a long way”. AV systems create microenvironments under the PV panels because of the shade that is created. Through the microenvironments, we are combating climate change and preventing the degradation of land through smaller built environment systems. 

With the integration of Western science into Indigenous knowledge as a way to enhance thousands of years of research with the modern infrastructure of today, AV shows promise as a component in the efforts to mitigate climate change. The understanding of symbiotic relationships is essential to assisting in rebuilding the environment and increasing the nexus between food, energy, and water to conserve and restore resources. Adapting to both forms of scientific knowledge is leading research and I am thankful my culture and upbringing have allowed me to assist in the science that will benefit the work being done. Awh’ho

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