You are here

Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ 700-KW Solar System Cuts Costs, Generates Energy and Optimism

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) knows a thing or two about parlaying the payout from a calculated bet into a long-term winning streak.

The Tribe’s new solar farm, which offsets the energy load of a casino and three other tribal buildings, will save EBCI an estimated $99,000 annually.

Installed on tribal land adjacent to the Cherokee Valley River Casino near Murphy, North Carolina, the 700-kilowatt (kW) solar photovoltaic (PV) system generates clean, renewable energy to power the casino, a hotel, and two administrative buildings. A million-dollar grant the Office of Indian Energy awarded in 2017 supplemented the Tribe’s $1.3-million investment in the project.

Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians' solar installation.
This parcel of tribal land adjacent to the casino offered the EBCI one of the few opportunities to site a 700-kW solar array in the mountainous terrain of western North Carolina’s Great Smoky Mountains. Photo courtesy of EBCI

Along with cutting energy costs, the project supports the EBCI’s commitment to ensure the wise use of limited natural resources; help maintain affordable, reliable electricity service; and strengthen the Tribe’s sovereignty while enhancing quality of life for more than 16,000 community members.

For Secretary of Agriculture and Natural Resources Joey Owle, who is tasked with advancing EBCI’s strategic energy plan (SEP), the project enables his Division to “put action to words.”

When Words Give Rise to Action

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Nation is nestled in the forested hills of western North Carolina at the doorway of the Great Smoky Mountains. Its breathtaking scenery and rich natural resources are central to the community’s cultural and economic well-being.

In 2006, EBCI adopted a proclamation that made promoting a healthy, sustainable natural environment within the 58,000-acre Qualla Boundary and throughout the region a priority. The legislation set forth a long-term energy vision committing the Tribe to aggressive actions to develop alternative energy resources and reduce energy consumption.

Less than a year later, the Tribal Council established an Energy Committee tasked with developing an SEP. Completed in 2009 with the support of a DOE First Steps grant, the plan aims to ensure the wise, effective, and efficient use of the community’s limited natural resources; preserve and protect the natural beauty of tribal lands and natural resources; and identify opportunities for sustainable economic and community development and energy cost-savings. 

In response to that SEP, the Tribe, with support from DOE, completed a facility retrofit project that saved EBCI more than $70,000 annually and exceeded the 30% savings goal for the nine retrofitted buildings.

The need to balance the SEP priorities with the challenges growth presents is what motivates the Tribe to pursue renewable energy development. As the Nation’s population and economy grow, so will the demand for electricity. Expansion plans for EBCI’s primary casino in Cherokee, already under way, include a 400- to 500-room hotel and a 100,000-square-foot convention center. An outdoor shopping area is under consideration.

Solar System Keeps the Lights on and the Slots Singing

Owle said the main energy challenges EBCI faces involve ensuring reliable, affordable service to the buildings that drive its economic engine and use the most electricity—the school, hospital, tribal services and administrative buildings, and casino.

The solar project focused on EBCI’s secondary casino in Murphy, which is served by Murphy Electric Power Board, a small, rural utility that was approaching 70% of load capacity before the solar system went online.

“With gaming, it’s 24x7x365; we can’t miss a second of any kind of power for the gaming industry,” said Owle. “So this project was slated to offset the casino demand.”

The casinos represent the largest service load for the Tribe, explained Owle. “So as we’re moving forward, we need to look at how we can reduce our carbon footprint and also supply some of our own demands through the deployment of solar PV arrays, either on a large scale or small scale, across the boundary.”

Construction on a solar array.
The solar system provides energy to the nearby casino and three other buildings, saving EBCI more than $99,000 per year. Photo courtesy of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians

Energy Independence Strengthens Sovereignty

Owle sees solar energy development as a strategy for reducing energy costs for families and individual tribal members while also realizing the ideal of tribal sovereignty he grew up hearing about.

“How can we call ourselves sovereign if we’re dependent for multiple functions? Energy independence is a component of our sovereignty,” he said. “We are taking our independence and sovereignty into our own hands by investing in this industry to meet the needs of our community members.”

We are taking our independence and sovereignty into our own hands by investing in this industry to meet the needs of our community members.

Toward that end, the Division Owle leads is focused on compounding the impact of the solar successes the Tribe has achieved, from the roughly 1-kW solar trees installed at the EBCI welcome center in 2012 to the 700-kW solar system installed at the Valley River Casino 7 years later.

The $99,000 the system saves each year will free up funds the tribal government can invest in services that enhance quality of life for the community. Owle sees an opportunity to leverage the momentum created by this project to branch out in a new direction.

“Our community is wanting to see more solar deployed, and we are going to focus on residential deployment and see how we can impact folks’ lives and their wallets on a monthly basis,” he said. “That is a priority of ours.”

Our community is wanting to see more solar deployed, and we are going to focus on residential deployment and see how we can impact folks’ lives and their wallets on a monthly basis.

Attending the Office of Indian Energy Program Review in November 2019 was a source of inspiration and ideas toward that end. He was particularly impressed with the success tribes across the country have achieved in recent years by partnering with GRID Alternatives, a nonprofit organization that leverages DOE funding to bring the benefits of solar technology to communities.

When Owle returned home, he immediately began petitioning Principal Chief Richard Sneed, the Housing Secretary, the Tribal Employment Rights Office, and others within tribal leadership to focus on small, distributed solar, where he believes the Tribe can get the most bang for its buck.

“That’s where you really start to see us chipping away at the block,” he said. “It’s great to see this big [system], and we have great drone footage [of] this big, beautiful solar array. But I also want to see 100 homes with small systems deployed.”

Success Serves as a Springboard

Owle hopes to apply the success other tribes have achieved deploying residential solar as a template for offsetting costs to the Tribe and giving its families and individual members a stake in going solar. 

“I want to keep coming back to the Indian Energy Program Review because I get inspired and I’m like, ‘Why aren’t we doing that,’ or ‘I need to talk to this organization and see how they’re doing it,’” he said.

I want to keep coming back to the Indian Energy Program Review because I get inspired and I’m like, ‘Why aren’t we doing that,’ or ‘I need to talk to this organization and see how they’re doing it.’

The experience of other tribes that have worked with GRID Alternatives and secured DOE grants to pursue residential solar PV development provided Owle with a proven strategy for building on the success achieved in Murphy.

Securing buy-in for that strategy was one of his top priorities when he and other tribal leaders gathered for a retreat organized by Chief Sneed in January to develop a playbook for compounding the returns on EBCI’s past investments.

“In Native communities, you always hear, we’re thinking seven generations out,” Owle said. “So for this project … we’re reducing the energy consumption for an essential function of the Tribe, which will reduce our carbon footprint—which commits us to that rhetoric of, ‘we’re serious about our future energy needs.’ And this is a great springboard into larger projects.”

Owle is mindful of the need to be strategic in balancing well-intentioned ambitions with budgetary and topographical limitations that create hurdles to aggressive solar energy development. He’s also optimistic about the odds of continued solar success as the Tribe presses onward in pursuit of a better future.

“We’re having to be methodical, he said. “It’s baby steps, and you take the little wins when you can get them.”

Learn more about the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ community solar project and Owle’s role in championing tribal energy development.