The Ute Mountain Ute tribe may benefit from wind, solar and hydro-electric power, according to participants at a forum on renewable energy last week in Towaoc.
The three-day event featured speakers from Sandia National Laboratory and tribal leaders for energy and environmental services.
Scott Clow, the tribe’s environmental director, discussed a micro-hydro-electric project in the works using water pressure from the Towaoc Highline Canal.
Siphons pull water from the canal under roads and other obstacles, drastically increasing water pressure. To prevent infrastructure blow-out when the water returns to the canal, energy dissipation structures reduce the water pressure.
“That energy is wasted,” Clow said. “So we want to install a small hydro-electric turbine in there.”
The tribe also is investigating the potential for creating hydro-electric power through a pump-back storage facility.
A site was identified in the Westwater area on the portion of the reservation that dips into New Mexico near existing power line infrastructure.
The pump-back storage idea involves creating two reservoirs, one 1,000 feet higher than the other. When water is drained from the upper reservoir into the lower one, it drives a turbine that creates electricity.
Pumps return the water to the upper reservoir, and the system makes money by producing electricity for the grid during peak rates. Construction costs were estimated at $500 million to $700 million. The plan is in the discussion phase.
Coal-fired power plants in New Mexico are decommissioning five generators, so it was thought that the pump-back storage plant could create revenue while filling the energy void with clean power and provide the tribe revenues.
Power of the sun
The tribe has a plan for a solar farm at an old landfill south of Towaoc that would provide electricity for the Ute Farm and Ranch operation.
Last year, the tribe was awarded a $200,000 brownfield cleanup grant from the EPA to stabilize the landfill. Once completed, the plan is to install a solar-panel farm on top of it.
A survey was completed identifying locations for solar farms on the reservation. It was noted that solar farms can be compatible with cattle and sheep grazing because the panels provide shade for the animals and pasture.
Community-level solar power involves panels installed on rooftops and in the field to run pumps for agriculture and drinking water for livestock.
“Prices for photo-voltaic panels are going down,” said Sandra Begay Campbell, a Navajo and engineer at Sandia National Laboratories. “Using renewable energy can get a resident to net zero, where you generate more electricity than you use, and sell the extra back to the utility for credit on your bill.”
Oil and gas production has been the mainstay of the tribe’s energy program, but it creates pollution and is not sustainable, said Gerald Peabody, director of natural resources.
“We need to think about a shift to clean energy, and help that along,” he said. “The overall picture is to produce energy that does not contaminate and is self-sustaining. Oil and gas will not last forever.”
Empire Electric provides service to southwest Colorado and the Ute Mountain tribe. Under Colorado regulations, electric co-ops like Empire that serve less than 100,000 customers must generate 10 percent of total retail sales from renewable energy sources by 2020.
The Department of Energy’s Tribal Energy Program offers technical and financial assistance to Indian Tribes for renewable energy development. Since 2002, the program has invested $48 million in 183 renewable energy projects across the U.S.