Long road leads to solar success for Southern Ute tribe

Tenacity paid off for the Southern Ute Indian Tribe on July 24, when they dedicated their newly commissioned and fully operational Oxford Solar Project on the Southern Ute Indian Reservation in Ignacio, Colorado.

The Southern Ute Tribe built their solar array on the mostly unusable Oxford Tract near a substation and just three miles from the tribal building campus.

The Southern Ute Tribe built their solar array on the mostly unusable Oxford Tract near a substation and just three miles from the tribal building campus. (Photo by the Southern Ute Indian Tribe)

The years it took to develop the 1.3-megawatt (MW), ground-mounted solar photovoltaic (PV) system ultimately ensured that the project was a winner for all involved. The array will reduce operating costs for the tribe by offsetting about 15 percent of the energy used by 10 tribal buildings. The siting of the project repurposes more than 10 acres of tribal land that was mostly unusable due to naturally occurring selenium contamination. The Oxford Tract, as the land parcel is called, has strong solar resources, is located near two substations and does not have any endangered or threatened species on it. La Plata Electric AssociationYou are leaving WAPA.gov. which is purchasing the power and providing the grid connection, counts the electricity toward its goal of 20 percent local generation by 2020.

Slow start gathers steam
The Southern Ute Tribe first began to explore the idea of building a PV system in 2006 as a way of diversifying its business interests, and launched the Southern Ute Alternative Energy LLC (SUAE) in 2008. As a for-profit business, the SUAE evaluated solar PV development opportunities on tribal lands from a business perspective. For several years, alternative energy projects remained stubbornly out of reach, too costly for SUAE to pursue.

The turning point came in 2011 when the tribe performed a new feasibility study to look at potential sites and business models. James Jensen, who had recently joined the SUAE staff, recalled that the study was very thorough. “We were open to projects either on or off of tribal land,” he said. “If it was on tribal land, what was the best location? We evaluated environmental factors like whether the land was arable or disturbed or in a floodplain.”

The study also considered the proximity of transmission and substations to potential sites and did economic modeling on hypothetical projects. “We came out of the process with a comprehensive understanding of what would make a successful solar project,” said Jensen.

The findings determined that the Oxford Tract was the most suitable location for a utility-scale solar development, and that a grant was needed to make the project economical.

JumpSTARTing project
Southern Ute Grant Specialist Jody Rosier began working with Jensen on the grant application to submit to the Department of Energy (DOE). Financial help wasn’t the only thing DOE had to offer the tribe, however.

Just as important, Rosier recalled, was the tribe’s participation in the Strategic Technical Assistance Response Team (START) Program. START, a program of the DOE Office of Indian Energy, provides technical assistance to help Native American tribes complete renewable energy and energy efficiency projects. “START analyzed and validated the findings of the feasibility study,” Rosier recalled, “and helped the tribe to establish a relationship with DOE.”

The program also helped the tribe determine the siting of the project near substations belonging to LPEA. “Initially, the project was planned as a ‘virtual metering’ situation, where any kilowatt-hours being generated would offset kilowatt-hours the tribe was using,” explained LPEA Engineering Manager Ron Meier. “Siting the array near a substation was key to making physics work. It really simplified the development process for them.”

Beyond that, Meier added, the purchase power agreement was pretty straightforward. With a budget of $3 million co-funded by the tribe and a $1.5 million grant from the DOE, it was time to start building.

Ready, set, install!
SUAE issued a request for proposals at the end of 2014 for an 800-kW system. It was around that time that the solar industry saw a significant drop in the price of panels. “We were pleasantly surprised when the bids came back to find that we could afford to build a somewhat larger project,” said Jensen.

The tribe chose Boulder, Colorado-based Namaste Solar to design the project for the tribe and install the tracking panels. Jody Rosier noted that tracking technology is becoming more common in new solar installations. “Panels that follow the sun across the sky generate more electricity and that improves a project’s economics,” she said.

The long process that culminated in the July 24 celebration provided the Southern Ute tribe with a thorough education in solar development. Jensen observed that the most important lesson they learned might be to keep the first project simple. He pointed to the selection of a site that did not require an environmental impact study as one factor that kept the project from getting too financially and legally complicated.

Although grants that require matching funds may put projects beyond a tribe’s reach, Rosier encourages tribes that are interested in developing renewable energy systems to investigate available grants. “Grants that require matching funds may not work for tribes,” she warned. “But once the renewable system is up and running, it provides years of sustainable electricity and needs little maintenance.” 

Source: Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs, 7/25/17