Trapping the Sun on the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation

This solar array footprint on the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation is 300 feet by 20 feet. (Photo Courtesy CTUIR)

Patrick Mills, scientist and project management professional for the Confederated Tribes of the Umatilla Indian Reservation (CTUIR), is the first to admit that it’s a bit challenging to get a big solar project off the ground. 

“Where do you start? Does the chicken come before the egg, or does the egg come before the chicken?” he laughs.

What he means is that the CTUIR, a union of three tribes: Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla, didn’t have funding in hand. But to move their vision for the project along, they had to scope it. So, they handled that by soliciting proposals from contractors, ultimately selecting Elemental Energy for the installation of the solar array. “We had to have that all in-hand to get the funding,” Mills told Native Business.

Once the Tribe secured initial funding from the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Indian Energy, it could move forward — in theory. But the Tribe couldn’t make payments until it received final authorization from the DOE to begin incurring costs. 

“From 2016 to summer 2017, there was a bit of a downtime when contractors were wondering, ‘What the heck is going on? Do we have a project or not?’ So, a lot of communication had to be done to make sure they were still in the loop and knew we were going forward with this project—or else it would have been dropped,” Mills said. “There were a few times when the contractors and groups we were working with were really difficult to get a hold of, because I don’t think that they thought we were going to be able to go forward with this.”

In September 2017, DOE authorized the Tribe to begin accruing expenses. 

The DOE put up about 50 percent of the total cost of the project: $133,705. The CTUIR contributed $63,413. Another $71,000 came from Energy Trust of Oregon, and the Wild Horse Foundation provided $20,000. The total project budget came to $288,206. 

“The Wild Horse Foundation grant came later on in the process, and that really saved our bacon. About 7 percent of the costs associated with this project were not planned. That extra $20,000 really made this possible for us; we were very pleased with that,” Mills said. 

But before installing the solar project, the Tribe implemented energy efficiency measures in January 2018 to improve economics, replacing fluorescent lighting with high efficiency LED lighting in three tribal buildings on 332 individual light fixtures. “That had quite a bit of energy savings associated with it alone,” Mills said. 

The solar array was constructed by the end of April 2018. The CTUIR named the new array Ántukš-Tińqapapt, meaning “sun trap.” Ántukš (on-took-sh) comes from the Umatilla Language and Tińqapapt (tin-cop-popped) is Cayuse. 

“We gave a culturally relevant name to the solar system to bridge the gap between traditional, cultural values of the Tribe and newer technology,” Mills said. 

The solar array footprint is 300 feet by 20 feet, built with 276 individual 355-megawatt solar modules. The racking for the solar array is set in seven-feet-deep concrete, so it can hold its own against the strong winds that whip through the Blue Mountains of Oregon. 

“We had some utility requirements, some GRID safety protection requirements to abide by, so it was close to June when we got the solar array commissioned and online,” Mills shared. 

Getting the project up and running is just part of the process. Knowing the utility requirements is equally essential. While CTUIR’s solar contractor, Elemental Energy, was experienced working with many different utilities, energy provider Pacific Power had recently came out with a new grounding transformer requirement that Elemental wasn’t familiar with. 

“Luckily they were very cooperative in working with us and making sure that it didn’t cost extra to have the grounding transformer installed in our system. But it took a lot of time and energy on their part to get it in, so they could turn on the solar system and start pushing power to the grid,” Mills said. 

Native Business first spoke with Mills on a sunny day in December 2018, when the solar array was generating more power than his Tribal building could use. Pacific Power’s net meter measures that excess power and offsets electricity use with solar power at the Tribes’ public transit center, which houses two buildings (though it’s fed power through a single meter). 

Pacific Power balances the bills for those two meters. “That’s called an aggregated net meter agreement with Pacific Power. When you apply for aggregated net metering, you can take one solar system, such as this, and then scale it for multiple buildings or houses, and it really improves the economics,” Mills said. 

Mills underscored that it’s not effective to send more power back to the grid than what you use, “because if you are providing power to the utility, then they’re probably going to be paying you wholesale for that power. It actually decreases the cost of the power. Whereas if you’re offsetting your usage, you’re getting anywhere from 8 to 10 cents per kilowatt hour.” 

That’s important to keep in mind when designing a renewable energy project: It doesn’t make economic sense to create a system that will provide more power than you need. 

According to the CTUIR’s most recent economic analysis, the Tribes’ return on investment is about four-and-a-half years. 

“It’s really easy to justify when the economics are that favorable,” Mills said. 

If it doesn’t pencil out economically, it’s difficult to take a project from idea to reality. Mills added: “It takes some work to make sure you can satisfy those interests. When you have an idea and you’re trying to get it funded, the economic viability is incredibly important. It might be one of the most important things from an organizational perspective.” 

The CTUIR monitors its solar system performance daily through SolrenView.com. “It gives a lot of useful data and information,” said Mills, adding, “It’s real time. You see when the solar system turns on and how the power increases throughout the day. You can click on the analytics for weekly, monthly and yearly productions. It’s very useful.” 

Beyond offsetting energy costs for the Tribes, the new energy source also creates educational opportunities for CTUIR students. They have the unique opportunity to witness energy from the sun being converted to electrical energy.  

“There are not too many places where you have an opportunity to see, up close and personal, a system of this scale. It’s a really good learning opportunity for students, and especially those going into science and engineering,” Mills said. 

Looking ahead to the future, Mills speculates that in 10 years’ time, several more community-scale solar projects will dot the reservation, and the Tribes will pursue energy efficiency to a greater extent, working it into all future building and construction projects. 

“In 20 years, energy independence completely will be doable, but we would have to step up all renewable projects—solar and geothermal,” Mills said. 

When Mills considers true Tribal energy independence, he acknowledges the CTUIR need their own electric utility: “That would be phenomenal, I think, and help not only with maintaining energy independence, but all the employment and economic benefits that come with that.”  

This article originally appeared in the January 2019 Energy issue of Native Business Magazine. 

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