In Colorado’s High Desert, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe Goes Solar

The Ute Mountain Ute tribe is working to free itself from fossil fuel dependency—and preparing to help solarize the rest of the state, too.
Mesas in the Ute Mountain Reservation, CO

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Archaeologists and cultural anthropologists know the homeland of the Ute Mountain Ute tribe for its collection of 13th-century cliff dwellings and ancient pictographs, many viewable only in the company of a designated guide. In its tribal park that surrounds southwest Colorado’s Mesa Verde National Park, visitors can take in a wide array of petroglyphs and pictographs and hidden village ruins that are some of the region’s most impressive prehistoric structures.

But while the Ute Mountain Ute tribe’s roots on the Colorado plateau stretch back more than 2,000 years, its home is no mere relic of the past. Today the Ute Mountain Ute tribe’s reservation also boasts a 3,500-panel solar array visible from the highway. When switched on in December, the 1-megawatt project will provide about 10 percent of the tribe’s electricity use, avoiding the emission of 1,515 tons of greenhouse gases within the first year, says Scott Clow, the Ute Mountain Ute tribe’s environmental programs director.

“The concept of the tribe’s sovereignty and the ability to provide its own energy has great appeal to the tribe and tribal leaders,” Clow says. The Ute Mountain Ute tribe has been working toward energy independence for almost a decade now, he notes. It’s one way the nearly 2,000 residents of this rural, high-desert reservation are grappling with rising utility costs.

Money for the solar panels came from the Ute Mountain Ute tribe itself—to the tune of more than $1 million—and a U.S. Department of Energy grant of $1 million. The Colorado Energy Office supported the grant application project and connected the tribe to GRID Alternatives Colorado, a nonprofit that helps make renewable energy technologies and job training opportunities accessible to underserved communities.

The tribe has plans for a much more ambitious array of 200 to 300 megawatts, which would provide power well beyond its own needs. “We see this as a stepping stone to a much larger project,” says Clow, speaking of the initial array. He adds that the ultimate goal for the tribe is to get to net-zero energy use and then to sell extra power it generates back to the utility.

Ute Mountain solar training in Towaoc, Ute Mountain Reservation, April 2019

GRID Alternatives/Flickr

The initiative is well timed to build on a new wave of renewable energy legislation throughout the Rockies and Southwest. For example, the New Mexico Energy Transition Act that passed earlier this year looks to push the state to 100 percent carbon-free electricity generation by 2045. Officials have laid out a goal to get half the state’s power from renewable sources by 2030 and to double existing renewables by 2025. Colorado’s HB19-1261 also passed in 2019, aiming for 90 percent carbon reductions by 2050. “These new standards will kick off the opportunity for more tribal renewable energy production in the region,” says Noah Long, a senior attorney with NRDC who works on clean energy and climate policy initiatives in the West.

Importantly, the planned larger project will create jobs for the Ute Mountain Ute tribe. To help prepare its members to enter the solar workforce, GRID Alternatives contributed about $200,000 in in-kind funding for job training and development for 11 tribal interns during the initial solar panel installation. “The interns received two weeks of intensive solar skills training as well as OSHA and CPR/first aid training and then spent three months working alongside GRID staff to help install the solar array,” says Adrienne Dorsey, GRID’s executive director. Clow notes there was great interest in learning solar skills among the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, and many more people applied for the internships than there were spots available.

The momentum is growing. “We have been talking with some commercial solar companies that would like to do a project here on a much larger scale,” Clow says. With approximately 580,000 acres of land, there are sites available near transmission lines, and there’s enough space that a large solar array won’t impinge on the popular Ute Mountain tribal park.

Ute Mountain Solar installation in Towaoc, Ute Mountain Reservation, April 2019

GRID Alternatives/Flickr

Solar arrays may become part of a mix of renewable energy projects for the Ute Mountain Ute tribe. It’s also looking at building energy storage projects, which deploy technologies that can, for example, save the surge in solar power generated on a sunny afternoon. “As the western power grid changes to rely less on coal-fired power and more on renewables, you’ll need to balance solar and wind input with when people need energy, so storage is going to be an important part of that,” Clow says.

Investment in and development of energy resources aren’t new to Native American tribes, Long says. He points out that other tribal lands have been used for mining coal and uranium, and that the Navajo Nation hosts two major coal power plants, both now slated for retirement. Solar power offers a cleaner choice, and one with a lot of potential: A 2010 National Renewable Energy Laboratory report estimated that tribal lands in the lower 48 states could eventually produce 17,600 billion kilowatt hours of solar energy per year. That’s four times more than the total power consumed by the United States in 2018. “There’s a really great opportunity for native people in this part of the country to participate in the energy economy in a way that’s not extractive and won’t leave a lasting toxic environmental impact,” Long says.

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