For one U.S. Department of Energy leader, universities like Haskell can be a ‘mini-lab’ for clean energy growth

photo by: Austin Hornbostel/Journal-World

Haskell Indian Nations University students were able to connect with various employers at a career fair hosted by the U.S. Department of Energy Wednesday, Feb. 7, 2024.

The U.S. Department of Energy is in the midst of a cross-country tour of tribal colleges and universities, and this week it stopped in Lawrence to share resources with Haskell Indian Nations University students and help connect them to clean energy jobs, training and research.

Leaders with the DOE’s Office of Indian Energy were on the Haskell campus on Tuesday and Wednesday, and the Journal-World spoke with Wahleah Johns, Navajo (Diné), the director of the Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs, shortly after she arrived in Kansas City en route to Lawrence on Tuesday afternoon. Johns was making her first visit to Haskell, where she delivered a keynote address Tuesday night, and she said she sees the DOE’s nationwide campus tour as an important opportunity.

“We do think that Haskell and tribal colleges and universities, campuses are basically a ‘mini-lab’ of what you can actually produce in your community and see,” Johns told the Journal-World. “… The beauty about TCUs is that they also carry a lot of Indigenous knowledge within the faculty, within the philosophy of Indigenous teachings, and I think when you pair those with science and STEM, there’s a lot of creativity that can come out and a lot of innovation that can come out of utilizing our knowledge as Indigenous people, but also with the education that is there.”

When she spoke on campus Tuesday night, Johns further drove home that point — that tribal colleges and universities are “living laboratories” critical to sustaining tribal cultures and the perpetuation of Indigenous knowledge for future generations.

Johns said she’s often inspired when visiting campuses that incorporate Native languages of the region, one way that Indigenous knowledge manifests.

“I always think that our languages have a lot to contribute when addressing some of the most challenging issues today, and I think our languages provide the solutions to address (things like) climate change,” Johns said.

When tribal colleges and universities encourage the use of Indigenous languages, Johns said, that in turn strengthens the learning environment for students.

Johns said her office has been trying to engage more with tribal colleges and universities, especially by providing additional funding opportunities. Last year, the office announced the first of those, geared toward providing planning grants to campuses looking to convert to 100% clean energy — with $15 million on offer.

Another funding opportunity through the office was focused on supporting clean energy technology and hardware for campuses that were ready to start a transition.

“From that, we learned a lot,” Johns said. “It was our first time announcing this, and we wanted to this year come back and do a thorough roadshow to visit as many TCUs as we can and to let them know about the opportunity that we have with our funding.”

And Johns said there’s been a much larger “surge of investment” from the federal level, in the form of over $100 billion between the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law of 2021.

For students, the opportunities extend beyond just potential funding for their college campuses. One key part of the DOE’s visit to Lawrence this week was a career fair it hosted at Haskell on Wednesday.

Johns said the office also offers an internship program in coordination with Sandia National Laboratories, a subsidiary of Honeywell International and a contractor for the DOE’s National Nuclear Security Administration. Interns as part of that program support tribal energy projects and assist a cross-disciplinary team to perform technical tasks both out in the field and at Sandia National Laboratories. The office also helps to fund a Clean Energy Innovator Fellowship program that supports recent graduates and energy professionals as they work to advance clean energy solutions, sometimes with a tribe as a host.

Johns said she thinks there could be a surge of workforce opportunities in the near future, and building relationships with tribal colleges and universities will be an important part of making good on that growth.

“More and more, we’re going to see a number of opportunities — so many job opportunities — and we want these students to be ready and to be able to contribute to this energy ecosystem and clean energy,” Johns said. “And also be the stewards of our lands and our communities and this great nation. I think that’s the opportunity here with Haskell and a lot of the Native American students that are attending.”


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