Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs

Pala Band of Mission Indians Sees Savings from Solar-Powered Fire Station, Looks Ahead to Continued Energy Development

June 8, 2018

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The Pala Band of Mission Indians, like many tribes, has turned to renewable energy as a means of lowering energy costs and gaining independence from the grid. In the last three years, the Tribe has received funding support from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs toward two separate renewable energy projects—the first of which is now complete, and providing significant benefits to the Tribe.

In July of 2015, the Tribe received close to $220,000 from DOE to match its contribution for a 94.8-kilowatt (kW) solar photovoltaic (PV) array for the fire station situated on its northern San Diego Country reservation. The system includes a combination of rooftop and carport-mounted PV panels. Two years later, the Tribe furthered its investment in renewable energy by successfully pursuing a second DOE grant for a “first-steps” project to analyze energy options from all sectors, activities, and lands within the Pala Reservation.

We are absolutely committed to renewable energy. I look for every opportunity to bring in grant funding and look for project proposals. We don’t expect every project will require grant funding, but it’s nice to reduce up-front costs.

Shasta Gaughen
Environmental Director for the Pala Band of Mission Indians

Gaughen said for the Pala Band, being in California where there’s so much sunshine helped make the decision to move forward with the solar project simple. Since completing the installation and beginning monitoring on December 30, 2016, the PV system has produced 219,227 kilowatt-hours (kWh) of energy for the fire station, as of March 29, 2018. During this period, the Tribe was also able to offset nearly 275,000 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions.

“It’s been terrific,” Gaughen said. “[The solar array has] been up and running for more than a year now. We’re already started saving money on utility bills, and keeping greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere has been the biggest bonus.”

Part of the goal of the solar project was to lessen the Tribe’s dependence on power provided by the local utility. Prior to the solar array’s installation, the fire station used 152,831 kWh of electricity from the grid each year, along with 3,444 gallons of propane for heating purposes. The installed PV system produces an estimated 145,896 kWh annually, displacing 95.5% of the electricity used from the grid.

Following the success of the fire station project, Gaughen said the Tribe was motivated to pursue other energy projects on the Reservation.

“The casino, of course, is an enormous energy user,” she said. “We’re also looking at our utilities department, the fitness center, and the administration building.”

Gaughen said the Tribe’s first-steps energy analysis project—which is still in progress—has the potential to help guide energy development priorities in other areas of the Reservation. The primary objectives of the first-steps energy analysis are to identify energy resources on the Reservation; assess energy needs and production resources; investigate and evaluate supply-side and demand-side energy options; prioritize those options; and document them in an implementation plan.

“Not every building is well-positioned to receive southern exposure—which is ideal for solar energy,” Gaughen said. “We’re prioritizing what our next projects will be. My biggest fantasy would be to get that casino on a lot more renewable energy. Right now it’s not on any.”

So far, the Tribe has hired a consultant and started collecting info on energy use from some utilities.

Over the last three years, since the beginning of the fire station project, Gaughen said her eyes have been opened to how much energy really costs. She also noted since the fire station’s solar panels were installed, panels have become a lot less expensive and PV technology has improved. She said she’s also learned a lot about areas she didn’t know anything about previously, specifically geothermal energy and battery storage options.

The fire station and first-steps projects are a few examples of efforts taken by the Tribe to meet its long-term energy goals, which include decreasing environmental impacts and greenhouse gas emissions, as well as reducing energy consumption and costs.

“My goal,” Gaughen said, “is to get the tribe on 100% renewables. That’s probably a decade-long goal.”

Learn more about the Pala Band’s fire station solar array and energy analysis projects.