June 24, 2021

Quinault Indian Nation Solar Project: Jobs, Sustainability, Resilience

Construction workers installing a solar panel on a roof top.

In October of 2020, our friends at Bonneville Environmental Foundation (BEF) shared with us the opportunity to sponsor a joint project between the Quinault Indian Nation, BEF, and the nonprofit Twende Solar.

The project is the Quinault Indian Nation's first renewable energy effort: the installation of a 24 kW solar system with two Tesla Powerwalls for battery backup and resilience in the village of Queets.

When we think of solar energy, the first aspect that might come to mind is the environmental impact. While transition to solar energy is an important part of fighting climate change, it's also about so much more: it creates quality jobs, achieves cost savings, and offers increased resiliency.

Knowing all of that, our immediate answer, when asked if we'd be interested in sponsoring the project, was: yes!  

And just four months later, the Quinault, BEF, and Twende Solar had completed the installation of the solar system:

Nugguam April 2021 issue
You can read the full article on Page 3 of the April 2021 issue of Nugguam, the QIN monthly newspaper.

Let's just pause here for a moment and let this sink in: thanks to the efforts of the QIN, BEF, and Twende Solar, this project was completed in less than four months. Its contributions to the planet we all share and to the Quinault Indian Nation community will be experienced for decades to come. That's amazing.

All of us at TOM BIHN feel proud and grateful to play a small role in the project — and we hope you do, too. After all, if it wasn't for you, our customers, we wouldn't have been able to say yes to an opportunity to support a project like this one.  

We'd like to invite you to learn more about the Quinault Solar Project:


Q&A with Marissa Johnson, Executive Director of Twende Solar

Marissa Johnson of Twende Solar with her Aeronaut 45
"On my drive to the community center this weekend, I was reflecting on my good fortune to have a job where I get to partner with strangers that end up becoming good friends and leave such an impact on my heart and my life. This work is not at all about me- It's about sharing love and resources with our neighbors near and far to power their vision and goals, but I can't help but think I'm the luckiest one in all of this!" -- Marissa

You traveled the world with your Aeronaut before we even met or worked together on this project — can you share that story with us again?

Yes, absolutely! I stumbled across a video of the Aeronaut 45 on social media several years ago. I had just returned to the US after living abroad in Colombia for several months and was already looking forward to my next adventure. It's a struggle to travel light and be prepared, but the Aeronaut seemed to be the perfect balance of having enough space for what I needed and keeping me organized in the process. Also, it's darn durable so I never have to worry about the wear and tear of travel and it is so easy to move about with it in airports, on flights, and in crowds. 

I was working in a coffee shop while planning my next adventure, and I saved up my tips to treat myself to this awesome bag. By the time I'd saved up enough, the color I wanted was out of stock so I emailed TOM BIHN and one of your wonderful staff replied and told me it was currently in production and she would send me an email the moment it was back online. She made good on her word and Aeronaut and I have been traveling together ever since!  I've traveled with it to Europe, many trips to the Midwest to visit family, and camping adventures. It went with me to this project in Washington as well as on our last project in Haiti. I love that it has the option to carry it as a backpack or a duffel. It's so versatile! I also have to mention that your customer service impressed me and the bag has far exceeded my expectations.

Funny story, I actually ran into a gentleman in Portland at a renewable energy networking event and the last name of Bihn was on his name tag. I asked him if he was related to TOM BIHN since I knew my bag was manufactured in the Pacific NW and he indicated that he was, in fact, Tom's brother. I was super excited when BEF mentioned that TOM BIHN was interested in sponsoring this project after such a wonderful experience with the brand.

Students installing solar panels with Twende
"We are all in big trouble if the remaining [unpowered] communities all get energy access through the burning of fossil fuels like much of the industrialized world did/does."
We’d love to hear more about Twende — what inspires your work? Why solar?

Great question! Twende Solar was started by several students that were studying renewable energy engineering here in Oregon. They had a chance to participate in a humanitarian solar install in Tanzania during their studies, and it inspired them to focus on solar. They saw that communities that had never had landlines (or power lines) had skipped straight to cell phones. They saw the parallels with solar and the implications on electrifying the 2 billion people globally at that time that did not have access. A focused investment right where it is needed puts electricity within reach for everybody without the need of waiting for government or private industry to invest in expensive infrastructure and without burning fossil fuels to electrify the one billion people remaining without access.  We are all in big trouble if the remaining communities all get energy access through the burning of fossil fuels like much of the industrialized world did/does.

There are so many nonprofits doing great work to collaborate with communities to reach their development goals: quality education, modern healthcare, economic development opportunities. Access to abundant and reliable energy is at the core of all of these essential aspects of sustainable development and the alleviation of poverty. That's why we chose to work on solar-- it solves several problems at once. Our nonprofit and community partners are experts in visioning, community organizing, and building a plan for meeting the needs of the community. They are maybe not experts in solar technology, however, and that is where we come in. With staff, volunteers, and a board that collectively has many decades of industry experience, we can customize solutions to fit the goals and budgets of the community and advise on how to have the biggest and longest-lasting impact with the smartest investment. 

Our name, Twende, is a Swahili word meaning "let's go!" and it's a way to honor that first experience in Tanzania and captures the essence of how we approach our work. We follow the lead of communities that need a sustainable source of electricity to power their work and we lift up and power their solutions to the challenges that hold them back from even bigger impact. We count on them to outline the challenges, goals, and what will and will not work in their specific communities and then we say, "let's go," and figure out creative ways to bring people together to make it happen. We are one small piece in a really big puzzle and we have to be good listeners to be good partners.

A Twende pro teaching Queets about Solar
"Most of our remaining volunteers were from the Queets community and they got to learn from the pros. . ."
The opportunity to help sponsor your work on the Quinault Project was an immediate yes for us — as a Certified B Corporation, we know that good jobs go hand-in-hand with clean energy and environmental progress. Can you share more with us about Twende’s goals for this project?

While there are a lot of goals that are similar no matter what project we are working on like access to renewable energy, bill savings and resilience through battery backup, there were a few that were a bit different for this project in particular. Unique to this project was a desire to build bridges for career pathways for members of the community. To do this, we were extra selective about building our install team and reached out to solar contractors in the NW part of Washington to invite technicians and electricians from their companies to lead the install. Most of our remaining volunteers were from the Queets community and they got to learn from the pros at South Sound Solar, A&R Solar, Elemental Energy and True South Solar as they worked side-by-side on the install. 

Additionally, we collaborated with several nonprofits to facilitate formal technical solar training for the Quinault participants. Henry Red Cloud, a Lakota Elder from the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, will be leading the training with support from the team at Remote Energy and training from Solar Energy International. The Quinault Indian Nation has several solar projects in development as part of their village relocation plans and it would be wonderful if members of the community could be staff on those installations.

Every Twende Solar project is an opportunity to teach more people about harnessing the limitless power of the sun and often we include some hands on experimentation with simple solar circuits. Through our partnership on this project with BEF, we invited their CE: clean energy. bright futures. team to participate on the install and to collaborate with local educators for renewable energy curriculum development. We look forward to seeing what they develop together and visiting the community for field trips and tours of the system.

Q&A with Raphaela Hsu-Flanders, Program Manager, Renewables, at Bonneville Environmental Foundation (BEF)

Raphaela Hsu-Flanders of BEF
"Based in Portland, Oregon, our [BEF's] work is rooted in strong partnerships and collaboration with other nonprofits, tribes, communities, businesses, utilities, school districts, and government entities."
Let’s just start off by saying: BEF rocks. Several years ago, when we made becoming operationally carbon neutral a goal for TOM BIHN, we didn’t know where to start — it seemed like a daunting prospect for a smallish business like ours. Tom’s brother who lives in Portland suggested we reach out to you — we did, you completely demystified the process and walked us through it, and months later, we became operationally carbon neutral. Okay, we’ll stop gushing now — can you tell us more about the work that BEF does?

Right back atcha! Kudos to the whole TOM BIHN team for setting out to become operationally carbon neutral. We are tremendously grateful for your support of the Quinault Solar Project. BEF is a 501(c)3 nonprofit focused on environmental solutions at the intersection of renewable energy and clean water. Based in Portland, Oregon, our work is rooted in strong partnerships and collaboration with other nonprofits, tribes, communities, businesses, utilities, school districts, and government entities. We seek to understand the needs of the communities and partners we work with and develop innovative energy solutions that deliver measurable economic benefits to those most impacted by economic inequity and environmental harms. We bring together partners across all sectors of society to create innovative solutions to address climate challenges, sustain healthy freshwater ecosystems, and catalyze a renewable energy future for all.

If there’s other businesses like ours reading this who are daunted by the idea of becoming operationally carbon neutral — what would you say to them?

Like you mentioned, demystifying the process can go a long way. Long-term organizational change doesn't happen overnight, and we are here to help businesses take steps, however small at first, towards their goals of becoming operationally carbon neutral through the environmental commodities we offer (carbon offsets, renewable energy certificates, water restoration certificates, and free Greenhouse Gas Accounting for Business 101, for companies interested in taking their first step). We work with our business partners to develop customized solutions that work best for them to decrease their footprint.

The Quinault Nation Solar Project is a joint effort between the Quinault Nation, Twende Solar, and BEF — can you share more with us about this project and its goals?

The goal of this project was to support the Quinault Indian Nation's climate and energy resilience goals, and to bring together a unique set of partners to help develop the first solar project on the reservation. With a volunteer team of local solar contractors, we installed a 23.7 kW system on the Queets Community Center - a community hub and gathering place during power outages for the QIN. Additionally, we wanted to provide workforce development and job training opportunities for Quinault community members interested in pursuing careers in renewable energy. We hope to continue working with the QIN to develop additional renewable energy projects as they carry out their village relocation plan to adapt to climate challenges.

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