A hayfield near Towaoc will soon be transformed into a 1 megawatt solar array, thanks to a $973,000 grant from the Department of Energy and a $1 million match from the Ute Mountain Ute tribe.
The nearly $2 million solar farm will provide electricity to tribal residences, businesses and government offices, lowering utility bills. The solar power will upload onto the Empire Electric system from the Nuchu substation on the outskirts of Towaoc.
“It’s great news. Some of this field is going to stop growing hay and start growing electricity for the community,” said Scott Clow, environmental director for the tribe, during a site tour Tuesday.
On a flat field in a wide valley northwest of the Ute Mountain Casino, 265 solar modules will be installed on 4.5 acres. The panels will be on concrete slabs and be fixed or rotate on an axis to track the sun.
The tribe is working with Empire Electric Association to divide the solar energy three ways to reduce the tribe’s electric bills. One third of the power will be divided between 600 Towaoc homes, and the rest between tribal enterprises and government offices.
“The electricity generated will be on the tribe’s side of the meter and will provide significant power for Towaoc,” Clow said.
The system will offset at least 10 percent of the tribe’s overall energy usage beginning in Year 1, impact more than 75 tribal buildings, and save an estimated $157,440 annually.
Part of the community solar farm project focuses on job creation and training tribal members in the solar industry, said Lee Trabaudo, utility manager for the tribe’s Public Works Department.
Two interns from the tribe will be hired to assist with the project, and the long-term maintenance of the solar panels. The system also will create new positions, he said.
“We’re excited to learn the solar trade and get tribal members certified as solar technicians. It’s important to benefit from the clean energy of the sun because that is the future.”
Besides providing electricity and jobs, the experience gained will position the tribe for more energy projects such as hydropower, wind and geothermal, said Bernadette Cuthair, community services director for the tribe.
“The bigger picture is that we want to expand into commercial renewable energy projects to create jobs and revenue, and this gives us that experience,” she said. “It’s a very exciting time.”
When tribal officials first applied for the competitive Department of Energy solar grant, they were turned down, Cuthair said. They applied a second time with a more comprehensive plan and were successful.
“We worked diligently to develop partnerships for the project and articulated a better plan that benefited the community as a whole,” Cuthair said.
The tribe has partnered with the Department of Energy, Empire Electric and the nonprofit Grid Alternatives to work out the substantial technical aspects of an industrial solar farm.
“A big shoutout of thanks to all our partners,” Clow said. “We’re positioning the tribe to have a diverse energy portfolio. With oil revenues are down, exploring commercial, renewable energy projects for the tribe looks very promising.”
The enthusiasm and financial support from the tribal council is key to the project’s success, said Cuthair. The tribe’s $1 million contribution is from the Animas-La Plata water project settlement fund.
“Their council’s goal is to help their constituents out, and by tapping into solar, we are able to do that by lowering electric bills and providing jobs,” she said. “The tribal council is to be commended for their optimistic outlook and support of renewable energy.”
Construction of the solar farm is expected to begin this year, and when the switch is thrown, there will be a community ceremony, tribe officials said.
The Ute Mountain Ute tribe was one of 13 tribes that received a total of $7.8 million grant funding from the Department of Energy’s renewable energy program.
“These projects, consistent with President Trump’s America First Energy Plan and the vision Secretary Perry has for Indian Country, will install 6.3 megawatts of new energy generation for more than 3,000 tribal buildings and homes across the nation, saving communities more than $2 million each year,” said Office of Indian Energy Director William Bradford. “These energy development and efficiency projects will provide economic benefits to American Indian tribes and Alaskan Native villages for many years to come.”