Electric Currents

A Solar Journey Into Indian Country

Jan 30, 2015

The job was supposed to take just an hour or so to finish hooking up the new 23kW solar array on the roof of the Winnebago, Nebraska police department. It would take much, much longer.

Most days, I sit at my desk - hours on end - warm and comfortable, but mostly warm. Yesterday was not one of those days.

Well after the sun had set behind the barren hills to the West, I was standing behind the police station in Winnebago, Nebraska holding an LED trouble light for Marty Perkins, the electrician connecting a bundle of black, red, white and green cables into a circuit breaker panel. The winds were icy cold and Marty had left his heated work gloves at home, so he was working with his bare hands, stripping wire. This job originally was supposed to take only a hour or so.

It took way, way longer.

Marty is working with my long-time friend and colleague Michael Shonka, a Creighton University alum who is installing small scale - by today's standards - solar systems around the state. The system we're working on today is 23 kilowatts. It's mounted on the roof of the combined police and fire department in the village of Winnebago, in the heart of the tribe's reservation in northeast Nebraska. The cables feeding into the box Marty is working on with stiff cold fingers, connects the four rows of 280W LG solar panels on the roof to the breakers that snake through conduit into the service room on the other side of the concrete block wall.

There those cables tie into the building's main service panel. As originally planned that morning, the job would take maybe a hour or so and then we'd drive the few blocks over to Little Priest Tribal College for a meeting with the president, Dr. Johnny D. Jones. It was for that meeting that I had accompanied Shonka and Perkins. We wanted to to talk to Dr. Jones about an idea I had for creating jobs in the community: always a compelling topic, especially on a hardscrabble Indian reservation.

Our troubles began shortly after we cut the power to the police and fire station. We'd alerted staff and gone around to make sure computers, etc. were powered down. Fortunately, it wasn't a particularly busy day for the Bureau of Indian Affair's officers.

Winnebago, NE police station on brisk January Day, 2015

To be truthful, the problem actually began months earlier with that main service panel. It was vintage 1970s or so and required a special, 'they-don't-make-them-anymore' copper 'stand-off' - a massive pair of copper bars on which you mount the circuit breaker. Installing the stand-off bars, which had to be specially ordered and cost something like seven times the price of the breaker itself, was relatively easy. It was the thin, 3/8th inch bolt that the supply company had sent along that held the breaker onto the panel that would completely unravel our plans. It was about 1/4 of an inch too short!

Remember that old proverb about "for want of a nail, the shoe was lost, for want of shoe, the horse was lost, for want of the horse, the rider was lost…"

For want of a 1/4 inch longer, 3/8th inch bolt we would spend all day and into the evening, well after dark, finishing a job that should have wrapped up by 11 AM.

You see, the nearest hardware store is 20 miles away in South Sioux City, Nebraska, which is across the Missouri River from larger Sioux City, Iowa. Marty would have to drive the minivan to Sioux City, while Michael and I would meet with President Jones and Marisa Miakonda Cummings, the college's public relations director, among her other duties, which also includes sitting on the board of Ho-Chunk, Inc. the tribe's very successful holding company.

Little Priest Tribal College is a small, two-year institution for local tribal youth. It provides an associate degree that can be transferred to other larger educational institutions in the region. The college has a student body of about 100 young people who can major, I gather from our conservation with Dr. Jones, in business.

So, while Marty drove north to find that bolt, we had our meeting in the president's office. Fortunately, it went fairly well, despite a scheduling mix up -- he didn't know we were coming. I'll write more about it later.

It takes 30 minutes to drive to Sioux City, so it's an hour round trip. Marty wouldn't be back until after the noon hour at the earliest, so with our meeting finished, Michael and I walked down the hill, past aging tribal housing, and into the Senior Citizen Hall where lunch was being served: hot barley beef soup, Indian fried bread -- my first -- and something resembling a cupcake with a dollop of lemon on top. Michael shoved a $20 bill into the donation box for us - the nominal requested donation is $2.50 per person - and we were welcomed by the dozen or so Winnebago elders who were having lunch, gossiping, watching TV or putting puzzles together.

By 1 pm we'd finished lunch and began wondering where Marty had gotten to.

Nowhere was the answer.

He was having trouble locating the right bolt. It would take a series of phone calls -- and cellphone coverage in this part of state is spotty at best, along with Internet searches using the Center's computer - to finally track down a hardware store that had what we were looking for.

Sometime around 3:30 PM, Marty rolled in. I had spent the time catching up on news using the Center's WiFi and researching cargo bikes, then pacing the floor looking at posters on how to pronounce various greetings in the Ho-Chunk language, as well as high school sports schedules, a couple lovely Indian painting on the wall, and couple dozen potted plants on a table on the south side of the hall, a sign hopefully proclaiming 'Springtime.'

Incidentally, all around the hall and police station were various signs using the term "Indian Country," so I feel comfortable using that terms, since the community obviously has no issues with it.

With a 36-inch length of 3/8th threaded rod, some acorn nuts, and a box of 3 1/2 inch 3/8th bolts, just in case, we headed back to the police station. Around 4 pm, we cut their power again, and began the process of reinstalling the solid copper stand-offs, punching out the holes in the breaker panel cover, and praying Marty's idea of fabricating the right length bolt from the threaded rod would work.

Turns out, we didn't need that make-shift bolt, after all. The box of 3 1/2 inch bolts were, in fact, just the right length, after all. It was with a huge sense of relief for all three of us when Marty snugged up the breaker to the panel.

Bill Moore stands among Winnebago, NE police department solar array on brisk January Day, 2015

While he began hooking up the cables and we still had a bit of waning sunlight, Michael and I climbed the station's radio mast and onto its roof. We had to connect a half dozen micro inverters cables. I helped with a couple after he showed me what to do. It was cold and blustery on that roof, but I was thrilled to finally see the project in person I'd heard about second hand.

The sun had long set when we finally closed up the main circuit panel and moved outside to finish connecting up the cables in that breaker outside, a process that took twice as long as normal because we had to take period breaks to go back inside the building to warm up.

It would be nearly 8 pm, 12 hours after we'd set out from Michael's home in Omaha for the two hour drive north on Interstate 29, before we drove away from the police station. It had been a long, and occasionally frustrating day, but one that I found educational and, yes, even fun. It certainly was a huge change of pace and that meeting with President Jones and Ms. Cummings might evolve into something pretty exciting. We'll have to see if the seed Michael and I planted will sprout and grow into something that will not only benefit the local tribal community, but well beyond the reservation.

What we did accomplish was give the village of Winnebago another sustainable power source for at least one important element of their community. Hopefully, it won't be the last one.

Stay tuned.

Correction: I mistakenly referred to Marty Vaughan, an electrician instructor at Omaha's community college, where Marty Perkin's also teaches part-time. Apologies to both.

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