Solar on the Picuris Pueblo
A few weeks ago we had the opportunity to visit the Pueblo of Picuris and their amazing 1MW solar array. I’ve been excited about the possibilities of PV solar for a long time. I’ve co-contributed to a larger strategic plan for a larger pueblo, and still this visit was a dream come true.
Currently, I am one of five mentors in the Native Entrepreneur in Residence (NEIR) program. One of the companies currently in the NEIR program is Kingfisher Energy located in Minnesota, and the owner, Jaycob “Jake” Robinson, is a member of the Red Lake Band in Minnesota. Jake’s time has been split with Wendy Ederer, another mentor in the program, and myself. Although Jake lives in Minnesota we’ve been meeting with him on a weekly basis via phone and video conference calls. As a NEIR participant that lives in another state, we ask that folks come to Albuquerque and meet in person three times. For Jake’s visit in June, we incorporated a trip to Northern New Mexico and the Pueblo of Picuris.
Picuris Pueblo is approximately two hours away from our offices in Albuquerque, and one of the smaller tribes in New Mexico. If you’ve never traveled in that direction, it is a gorgeous journey and highlights many of the vistas, cloud formations, and scenic views that make New Mexico so amazing.
The Tribal Administrator, Jeff Atencio met us at the Tribal Administration building and shared the process behind building a 1MW system. The building blocks for the system included initial environmental studies, a clear value proposition, that included the Pueblo’s role as caretaker of their lands, and a desire to ultimately move toward being economically sovereign. Les Rubin, the Finance Director for the tribe also sat with us and talked about the labor intensive time, energy, and planning needed in order to secure funding for the project. Previously, the Pueblo started on a smaller level and already had experience with outfitting the first solar powered fire station, which was the first net-zero building in New Mexico. That morning we were also greeted by Governor Craig Quanchello and Lt. Governor Wayne Yazza.
After we spoke to the group, Jeff escorted us to the solar array which was a short drive away. For the Picuris array, they installed panels on a 10-acre site, containing approximately 3,700 panels, enough to power 600 homes. The idea for the large array came from a desire to help the people, according to Lt. Gov. Yazza. That turned into a revenue generator as they signed a 25-year power purchase agreement with the local electric utility cooperative, Kit Carson. The energy generated helps tribal members, and they are able to contribute to the power needed for a third of the homes in the surrounding valley outside of their Pueblo.
You can hear more about the project in a short video on Vimeo. https://vimeo.com/319073443
A good starting point for looking at tribal solar is through the Department of Energy’s Office of Indian Energy. They have an incredibly huge online library and a ton of resources that outline getting started. A few years ago they held monthly webinars that covered all aspects of tribal solar and those videos and transcripts are still available on their site. Going forward they have monthly webinars and also have an upcoming Tribal Energy Summit in September. See their site for more information. https://www.energy.gov/indianenergy/office-indian-energy-policy-and-programs
GRID Alternatives is another resource for help in planning and building on tribal lands. They’re a non-profit based in Oakland but have offices around the country. https://gridalternatives.org/what-we-do/tribal-program
If you’re looking for an organization that is focused on building systems that are not tied to the grid, take a look at the work Native Renewables is doing on the Navajo Nation. Through education and knowledge sharing, they’re finding success by offering tribal members an option to be energy independent. https://www.nativerenewables.org/
Some tribes have developed their own training facilities. This is the case with the Red Cloud Renewable Energy Center on Pine Ridge, which was started to help visiting tribes understand and sustain renewable energy systems. http://www.lakotasolarenterprises.com/
This is a short list of the opportunities that exist for tribal nations. With our trip to Picuris, we saw that the move toward a successful launch includes many stakeholders. You need support from the tribal administration, a champion to move the project through the many steps of the process, a thorough calculation of all funding options, and a good working relationship with the electric utility or cooperative. According to the project leads at Picuris, you also need to start the planning process early, make sure you have the proper environmental studies, and find the right contractor for the job. Do they have the experience for a job this size? Do they have the capacity? Finally, a strong schedule or timeline for the entire project is critical.
Many, many thanks to the folks at Picuris. We received a warm and generous welcome. Jake Robinson, the NEIR participant, was able to take away some important real-world experience back to his tribe. And, I was able to live a dream come true.
Pictured here (top) is Jeff Attencio, Tribal Administrator for Picuris; (L to R) me and Jake Robinson, Jeff and Jake examining the systems, and Jeff and Jake.