Southern Utes Cut Energy Costs and See Returns with Solar

A grant opportunity from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) paid for half of the Southern Ute’s $3 million solar farm.

A year ago, dignitaries from the Southern Ute Indian Tribe joined representatives from the Southern Ute Growth Fund and Southern Ute Utilities Division to dedicate the Oxford Solar Plant. At the time of its dedication, this project was the largest of its kind in La Plata County, making up 14 percent of all solar energy in the La Plata Electric Association (LPEA) system.

The Tribe originally conceived the project after Southern Ute leaders learned about a grant opportunity from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), which paid for half of the $3 million solar farm. With a strong business record established in the oil and natural gas space, the grant opportunity was just too good to pass up, and the Southern Utes seized the opportunity.

Tribes interested in exploring current energy grant funding opportunities from the DOE Office of Indian Energy can visit https://www.energy.gov/indianenergy/funding/current-funding-opportunities.

“The opportunity to access match funding through the Department of Energy was one that the Tribe could not pass up,” said Lindsay Box, Spokesperson for the Tribal Council. “The Southern Ute Indian Tribe conducted a thorough analysis of the available land and the photovoltaic solar resource determining it to be a benefit towards tribal operations.”

Today, the system is offsetting 15 percent of the energy costs in 10 tribal buildings, allowing the Utes to save money while harnessing an energy source that is clean, renewable, sustainable, and totally inexhaustible. The amount of power that the Tribe sells back to LPEA is equivalent to 15 percent of the power usage in the 10 buildings. To capture more energy, the panels track the sun’s movements throughout the day, ensuring that they are always in a prime position to capitalize on the solar resource. A year out, the Tribe has seen a modest 4 percent return on the investment, in addition to the cost savings.

After five years of feasibility studies, grant applications, design, and construction, the Oxford Solar Plant was activated in 2017 by Namaste Solar Electric Inc. in conjunction with the La Plata Electric Association, the Growth Fund Department of Energy, Growth Fund Properties Group, and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Indian Energy.

Since the 1990’s, the Southern Utes have been active in the energy sector. In 1992, the Tribe formed the Red Willow Production Company to buy back natural gas leases and to upgrade the performance of gas wells on the Reservation. After finding difficulties convincing local gathering companies to increase their capacity to transport the Tribe’s new volumes of gas to interstate pipelines, the Tribe partnered with the Stephens Group in 1994 and purchased Red Cedar Gathering Company to gather, process, and transport natural gas from the reservation.

In 1999, the Tribal Council adopted an official Financial Plan that separated its core government from its business enterprises, and later enacted the Growth Fund Implementation Plan to create the Southern Ute Indian Tribe Growth Fund in 2000.

Since then, one of the Tribe’s core focuses has been diversification. Red Willow now operates in nine states and the Gulf of Mexico, and the Tribe created Aka Energy to gather and treat natural gas off the reservation. In addition to developing a strong energy portfolio, the Tribe also has a portfolio of managed real estate holdings and a private equity group that invests in private equity funds and businesses. In total, roughly 80 percent of the Growth Fund’s revenue is generated by off-reservation investments.

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