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UND leads Tribal Energy Sovereignty initiative

Students watch lab demonstration with anticipation

National Science Foundation-funded project helps build sustainable, reliable and efficient tribal energy infrastructures

The National Science Foundation’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR) program has awarded a four-year, $4 million-grant to UND and seven partner institutions and organizations to advance tribal energy sovereignty.

Wayne Seames
Wayne Seames

The project, referred to as the “Sustainable Engineering Infrastructures and Solutions for Tribal Energy Sovereignty” program, will be led by two faculty from the Chemical Engineering department: Wayne Seames, Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor of chemical engineering and Bethany Klemetsrud, assistant professor of chemical engineering. Other UND participants include Woei Hung, Professor of Education and Human Behavior and Haochi Zheng, Associate Professor of Earth System Science & Policy.

Tribal communities often consist of rural, spread-out populations with distributed, smaller-scale power, heat and fuel energy systems, which are less reliable and may be less resilient to anticipated shifts in weather patterns and severity due to climate change. To assist in addressing this issue and to strengthen the research infrastructure of the North Dakota and Kansas EPSCoR jurisdictions, UND, in collaboration with North Dakota State University and Kansas State University, and with participation by Haskell Indian Nations University, Turtle Mountain Community College, Nueta Hidatsa Sahnish College, and the Tribal Nations Research Group, will work to develop technologies and methods to provide sustainable, reliable and efficient engineering infrastructures and solutions for tribal energy sovereignty.

Bethany Klemetsrud
Bethany Klemetsrud

The grant also includes educational activities, such as tasks that will  support Native STEM students to develop tribal nation workforces that will support renewable energy infrastructure for building tribal energy resiliency and independence.

This innovative project will be developed in partnership with tribal nations in Kansas and North Dakota, and its outcomes will be assessed from environmental, economic and social perspectives for both the short- and long-term.

The team will also seek to expand the understanding of how to best support native students in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) at traditional research universities with the creation of an INgineering program that will be developed in collaboration with the three tribal college partners and implemented at the three participating research universities.

“Beth came up with this project concept, which is constructed with a tribe-driven design,” said Seames. “She did a great job of articulating how to  center Native knowledge and expertise, and to identify solutions that are attractive for the participating tribal peoples so that the results are helpful. She will take a lead role in implementing this process along with many of the project’s outreach activities.”

Said Klemetsrud, who is a descendant of the White Earth Nation: “Wayne was instrumental in putting the team together and negotiating scope, budgets and more. He’s designed and implemented many large complex projects so having him oversee all the pieces will free me up to focus on content. It’s a great partnership.”

The Research Portfolio

The primary STEM research goal is to develop a suite of renewable energy and microgridtechnologies, along with associated economic, sustainability, and social impact data for use by tribal nations to support their energy sovereignty. More specifically, an inter-related suite of technologies will be explored to provide potential solutions for tribal communities. These technologies include:

  • Widely scalable photovoltaic-thermal systems for both heat and power.
  • Robust on-demand energy storage systems for power, heating and cooling.
  • Production of renewable fuels and power from waste materials (e.g., plastics) and non-food agricultural resources (e.g., corn stover, wheat straw and crop oils) in small scale, nearly self-sufficient processes.
  • Power microgrid technologies with both on- and off-grid modes depending on demands and surpluses.

Techno-economic and sustainability analyses, along with social and socio-economic valuation will be embedded in the research process to obtain a holistic assessment.

The work will be conducted with feedback and the consensus from tribal members and tribal governments located within the project team’s two EPSCoR jurisdictions.

Infrastructure and Outreach Activities

The Sustainable Engineering Infrastructures and Solutions for Tribal Energy Sovereignty project will serve as a focal point to increase the collaboration of STEM researchers in North Dakota and Kansas with a goal to expand and increase energy-related research activities. The team has already submitted additional proposals to complement and expand this core project.

The goal of the INgineering program is to increase the success of native students at mainstream research universities by adopting best practices to support native students by learning from our partner Tribal Colleges. The intent is to develop a program that can serve as a model for wide implementation of these types of programs and to help retain and support indigenous identity and career persistence within each native STEM student.

The project also includes workforce development for native STEM students and K-12 teacher professional development using project-based learning of culturally relevant engineering design.

The NSF EPSCoR Track II Program

EPSCoR is designed to fulfill the NSF’s mandate to promote scientific progress nationwide. The NSF EPSCoR RII Track-2 Program builds interjurisdictional collaborative teams of EPSCoR investigators in STEM fields. The topical focus area for 2023-24 projects is: “advancing climate change research and resilience capacity to expand opportunities for disproportionately affected communities.”

Projects under the RII Track-2Program are investigator-driven and must include researchers from at least two EPSCoR eligible jurisdictions with complementary expertise and resources necessary to address challenges, which neither party could address as well or rapidly independently.

RII Track-2 projects have a comprehensive and integrated vision to drive discovery and build sustainable STEM capacity that exemplifies individual, institutional, geographic and disciplinary diversity.

Additionally, the projects’ STEM research and education activities seek to broaden participation through the strategic inclusion and integration of diverse individuals, institutions, and sectors. NSF EPSCoR also recognizes that the development of early-career faculty from backgrounds that are traditionally underrepresented in STEM fields is critical to sustaining and advancing research capacity. The integration and inclusion of Minority-serving Institutions (MSIs), women’s colleges, Primarily Undergraduate Institutions (PUIs), and two-year colleges is a critical component of this sustainable STEM capacity.

The NSF Program Officer for this project is Jose Colom-Ustariz.


Written by Adam Kurtz  // UND Today