Community Solar Arrays Power Picuris Pueblo
Picuris Pueblo is nestled in the “Hidden Valley” of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of northern New Mexico. Home to 300 tribal members, the pueblo continues to preserve its traditional culture and lifeways.
The 86 tribal households at Picuris have had to use significant a portion of their income for utility costs. Some propane and utility bills have been upwards of $300 per month. Intent on lowering those costs, in 2014 Picuris set a goal of getting 100 percent of its energy needs from renewable sources. The tribe first experimented by solarizing its fire station and the home of a tribal elder. It quickly became evident that solar energy could drastically reduce costs.
In 2016, the pueblo secured a $1 million grant from the Department of Energy (DOE) and the Office of Indian Energy (OIE). Picuris matched the grant with a conventional loan and sought the help of the Northern Pueblo Housing Authority (NPHA), a tribally designated entity that provides community development services. In December 2017, the tribe installed a 1-megawatt (MW)solar array, enough to power every home on the pueblo while also generating surplus energy. In August 2018, Picuris was awarded a second grant from the DOE and the OIE to support the development of another 1-MW solar array. The pueblo will be the sole owner of two arrays on its tribal land. They will power 1,200 homes in the surrounding Peñasco Valley. Picuris plans to develop a third array and explore options of battery technology and storage.
Picuris Pueblo was able to develop its solar array because of unique circumstances. In 2016, the local utility, Kit Carson Electric Cooperative (KCEC), exited its agreement with Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association and signed an agreement with Guzman Renewable Energy Partners of Florida. KCEC wanted to produce more than the 5 percent renewable energy allowed by Tri-State. The agreement with Guzman provides KCEC with wholesale renewable electric power. According to KCEC, this will save its customers $50 million over the 10-year contract.
KCEC supported construction of the first array at Picuris Pueblo and entered into a 25-year power-purchase agreement (PPA) with the tribe. Renewable energy generated at Picuris is directed to the main grid and helps advance KCEC’s goal of providing 100 percent renewable energy to its customers by 2022. Picuris receives a check for energy generated each month. The solar array is estimated to generate at least $3 million over the duration of the agreement.
As a geographically isolated community, aside from a local smoke shop and partial ownership of Hotel Santa Fe, Picuris has had little economic development. Although the second array at Picuris has only been online for a few months, this summer the Tribal Council was able to present each pueblo household with a check. This is expected to continue throughout the duration of the PPA agreement. The council is also directing revenue from the solar arrays into projects such as a baseball field, Boys & Girls Club, and hiking and mountain biking trails. In addition, construction has begun on a travel center near the entrance to the pueblo on County Road 75.
Tribal members now have access to training in renewable energy, and the tribe is able to offer more employment opportunities in its own backyard. Being able to stay closer to home helps support a sense of community and Pueblo identity, which includes maintaining the Tiwa language and sacred practices. Solar energy appears to be a culturally appropriate form of development for Pueblo nations. Presenting itself as an example of how to transition from coal dependency to renewables, Picuris is now sharing its expertise with other tribal communities.
On the pueblo’s annual feast day on Aug. 10, Picuris provided tours of it solar facilities. The non-profit renewable energy advocacy group, New Energy Economy (NEE), co-sponsored a tour that included Pueblo dignitaries, Environment Protection Agency (EPA) officers, and nonprofit partners. Tribal officers and pueblo members from Acoma, Cochiti, Jemez, Kewa (Santo Domingo), Laguna, and Pojoaque attended.
Other New Mexican communities will not have the same opportunity for solar energy development until laws on investor-owned utility operations are changed. Aside from Taos Pueblo, which is also serviced by KCEC, other pueblos are hamstrung. PNM’s Customer Solar Energy Program is only permissible to single businesses or households, meaning that New Mexico communities or pueblos cannot pursue solar development on a community-wide scale. Other pueblos are provided electricity through Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative and Continental Divide Electric Cooperative, both of which operate under Tri-State.
According to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) in Golden, Colo., New Mexico has the second-highest solar potential in the United States. During the 2019 legislative session, a coalition of organizations and municipal governments, working with New Energy Economy (www.newenergyeconomy.org), will introduce legislation that, if passed, would make it possible for communities throughout the state to develop community-scale solar. A bill is being drafted to include specific concerns of tribal nations. NEE believes that community solar gardens would loosen the monopoly now enjoyed by investor-owned utilities and break open the market for renewable energy. Advocates also say that allowing local communities to pursue renewable energy on a large scale would also stimulate the state’s economy and facilitate local wealth creation in every part of the state.
And the time to do so is certainly now. In the face of intense drought, higher temperatures and increased threat of catastrophic climate change, the Picuris solar array and the transition it represents provides a model for how communities can drastically reduce carbon emissions.
Picuris Pueblo passed a resolution on Oct, 3, supporting legislation for a state renewable energy transition. The pueblo also signed onto the Paris Agreement created by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change. Picuris is the first community in New Mexico and the 10th tribal nation in the United States to support the Paris Agreement. Picuris’ solar project has benefited the pueblo in more ways than anticipated. The community has gained economic, political, cultural and environmental resilience. These impacts have increased Picuris’ sovereignty and self-determination as a tribal nation at the national level and in the international arena.
Protecting the climate is crucial for the health of Pueblo people and for the continuation of sacred cultural practices. Renewable energy development is critical for all people. Communities throughout New Mexico must commit to a clean energy transition to decrease the chance of exceeding planetary boundaries that will change the world as we know it. All efforts towards a renewable energy transition must be accelerated. It is up to us as tribal members, community members and citizens to ensure that New Mexico attains a renewable energy future.
Sara Mayanne Barudin (Kewa Pueblo) recently received an M.A. in Environmental Change & Management from the University of Oxford. She works on environmental policy and tribal renewable energy initiatives and is also affiliated with the United Nations Secretariat for the Permanent Forum on Indigenous Peoples Issues (SPFII). She currently works as community liaison for New Energy Economy.
Picuris’ solar project has benefited the pueblo in more ways than anticipated.
Solar energy appears to be a culturally appropriate form of development for tribal nations.