Feature Story | 8-Jan-2024

Green energy research addresses Indigenous needs

University of Oklahoma

University of Oklahoma professor Diana Denham is leading a research project to co-design renewable agricultural and ecological systems that reflect the knowledge and priorities of Indigenous community partners.

“There’s a national push for a sustainable energy transition, with solar and wind being a major focus. But, as you can imagine, solar panels require a lot of land,” Denham said. “With new research in agrivoltaics, the same land can be used for energy production and agriculture as well as other environmental planning goals.”

Agrivoltaics refers to land use for both solar panels and agriculture. Most research in agrivoltaic systems has examined ways farmers can boost their income by balancing the benefits and compromises between growing crops or raising animals and generating solar power. Denham’s team is exploring how integrating the knowledge and values of Indigenous communities can expand the possibilities of this emerging technology. 

Denham, an assistant professor in the Department of Geography and Environmental Sustainability, OU College of Atmospheric and Geographic Sciences, studies how Indigenous and marginalized communities assert autonomy through struggles over environmental resources. She leads this project, funded by a Growing Convergence Research grant from the National Science Foundation, alongside researchers from the University of Utah and Portland State University.

“We’re working with community researchers from Pawnee Nation in Oklahoma and Unixhidza, an Autonomous Zapotec university in Oaxaca, Mexico, to understand their specific priorities for crop production, energy production and environmental restoration,” Denham said.

The team, which includes mechanical engineers, plant biologists and Indigenous community researchers with backgrounds in farming and environmental restoration, will examine how energy can be produced in conjunction with other goals such as prairie restoration, culturally significant plant cultivation, water conservation and even pollinator habitats.

The Pawnee community partner is interested in renewable energy in part to help run their Seed Preservation Project, which requires substantial energy to keep their seed collections cold. Pawnee Keeper of the Seeds Deb Echo-Hawk is working alongside Denham’s team to incorporate knowledge from local farmers, students at the Pawnee Nation College and environmental planners.

“We’re leaning into collaborative design to actually design and maintain experimental systems that serve as living labs where other community members and people from outside the community can visit,” Denham said. “Working together, we can create designs according to the specific goals of each community and determine the indicators that will show us how well each system is achieving those goals.”

Additionally, Denham’s team is also exploring the concept of agriwind, the use of small-scale wind turbines, to achieve outcomes similar to those that solar panels provide. Graduate students from Native American studies, geography, biology and engineering will all participate in this project.

“This is an incredible opportunity for graduate students because of the current push for interdisciplinary, convergent research – for great minds to come together to ask questions in different ways and reach different answers by drawing on the insights of different fields. It’s also a great opportunity for students to get firsthand experience doing community-based research,” Denham said.


About the Project 

The project, “Developing Integrated Agroecological Renewable Energy Systems through Convergent Research,” is funded by a Growing Convergent Research grant from the National Science Foundation, Award no. 2317984. The project began on Oct. 1, 2023, and is expected to conclude on Sept. 30, 2028. This project was supported by the Office of the Vice President for Research and Partnership’s Significant Impact Research Grant Program.

About the University of Oklahoma

Founded in 1890, the University of Oklahoma is a public research university located in Norman, Oklahoma. As the state’s flagship university, OU serves the educational, cultural, economic and health care needs of the state, region and nation. OU was named the state’s highest-ranking university in U.S. News & World Report’s most recent Best Colleges list. For more information about the university, visit www.ou.edu.

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