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Agua Caliente Band's Pursuit of Energy Self-Sufficiency Gains Momentum

March 1, 2016 - 11:02am

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Concept drawing of the Agua Caliente Band’s Heritage Plaza Parking Lot Project, which involves installing solar arrays, partly funded by a DOE grant, on carport shade structures. Photo from Larry Fossum, Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians.

Concept drawing of the Agua Caliente Band’s Heritage Plaza Parking Lot Project, which involves installing solar arrays, partly funded by a DOE grant, on carport shade structures. Photo from Larry Fossum, Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians.

The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians in the Palm Springs area of California is a shining example of the type of leadership tribes can provide on the clean energy development front. The Tribe’s economic impact on the surrounding economy is significant and growing—it is one of the largest employers in the Coachella Valley, it has extensive holdings in its historic land base, it has developed the resources to support the tribal government and community, and it works with surrounding municipalities on ventures both on and off the Reservation.

Deeply rooted in the area for at least 5,000 years, the Agua Caliente Band has an enduring connection to its ancestral land and strives to preserve its sovereignty and cultural identity while seizing opportunities to support and sustain its members and the surrounding community. Increasingly, the Tribe’s efforts to address these interrelated priorities include energy efficiency measures and renewable energy projects.

In 2005, the Agua Caliente Band applied for and was competitively selected to receive a First Steps grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to develop a comprehensive tribal energy plan that aligned with the Tribe’s goals and values of self-determination, prosperity, and sustainability. The Tribe’s resulting Strategic Energy Plan, as well as most of its recommended initiatives—such as market and economic analyses of appropriate renewable technologies, establishment of a comprehensive tribal energy policy, and incorporation of energy efficiency and renewable resources into the tribal economic development framework—are in progress or complete.

“Without DOE’s long-standing support, the Tribe wouldn’t be where we are today relative to clean energy,” said Todd Hooks, Economic Development Director for the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians. “We appreciate not only the financial support, but the program staff who have supported our efforts.”

One such project that emerged from the Strategic Energy Plan involved retrofitting the Tribe’s Indian Canyon Trading Post in 2010. Along with energy efficient upgrades such as a new ceiling fan, roof insulation, a swamp cooler, new appliances, and a backup generator, the Tribe installed an 8-kilowatt (kW) roof-mounted solar photovoltaic (PV) system in an effort to save costs, protect the environment, and preserve the serenity and scenic beauty that add to the historic site’s allure. The energy efficiency measures significantly lowered the trading post’s energy demands. The PV system provided a quiet, clean, low-maintenance alternative to the trading post’s noisy, aging propane generator while helping offset escalating energy and system maintenance costs. In addition to cutting carbon emissions by more than 99%, the project, which was co-funded by the Tribe and the U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Indian Affairs, has reduced the trading post’s energy costs by an average of $13,000 a year—an 80% savings that will enable the Tribe to realize a return on its investment in just over nine years.

Agua Caliente Leads on Clean Energy and Sustainability

In 2010, the Agua Caliente Band was competitively awarded additional DOE funding for a solar feasibility and pre-development study on its lands (about 31,000 acres). Because the study revealed that a site at Whitewater Ranch possesses strong solar insolation and excellent wind resources, the Tribe dug deeper, and in 2012 was competitively selected to receive a DOE grant for a 10-megawatt wind/solar project feasibility study. By 2015, the site’s excellent wind resource was verified through installation of a 197-foot MET tower, and negotiations were under way for development.

All of these efforts are evidence of the Tribe’s steadfast pursuit of energy self-sufficiency through renewable energy development—a strategic endeavor that is gaining momentum.

As one example of that momentum, construction began last summer on the Tribe’s Heritage Plaza Parking Lot Project, which involved installing solar arrays, partly funded by a DOE grant, on carport shade structures. With an expected completion date of October 2016, the 77-kW solar installation is projected to offset 100% of the energy used by the Heritage Plaza, which houses the Tribal Education and Family Services offices, drastically reducing those combined electric bills from approximately $22,000 to about $200 annually. The Band anticipates a five-year payback on the solar installation, which is expected to deliver an additional $500,000 in savings over the remaining 15 years of the system’s minimum 20-year lifespan. 

As further evidence of its expanding leadership role in the clean energy and sustainability realm, the Agua Caliente Band hosted a DOE-sponsored Community-Scale Tribal Renewable Energy Workshop Feb. 9-11 at the Agua Caliente Resort and Casino in Rancho Mirage, California. View the workshop presentations

To learn more about the work DOE is doing to promote tribal leadership on the clean energy front, watch a video highlighting other tribal solar successes in the Southwest.

- Written by Kendra Palmer and Karen Petersen

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