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Department of Energy announces $50 million for tribal clean energy projects

Jeffrey Beall
Towoac, Colorado, is home to the Ute Mountain Ute tribe. The tribe is planning to execute a hydroelectric project along the Towaoc Highline Canal.

In January, the U.S. Department of Energy announced $50 million in funding support for tribal clean energy projects.

The grants will range from $100,000 to $2 million. They’ll fund projects like bringing electricity to tribal government buildings and community-scale energy generating systems. One way the grant program could make a difference in the Four Corners region is with solar projects.

“Any time during the construction of the plant, if we find that we could have grants or subsidies, that's going to reduce the overall cost of the plant," said Glenn Steiger of Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, which oversees many solar projects on the Navajo Nation.

"(It will) certainly have a beneficial impact on the cost to us per megawatt hour, let's say to whomever we might be selling output to.”

$2 million in funding may seem like a lot of money, but it won’t kickstart a utility-scale solar project. The Navajo Utility Authority’s Kayenta Solar Project provides 55 megawatts of solar power to Navajo homes and businesses. However, the cost of the project was more than $100 million. 70% of it came from federal funding. Program grants of $100,000 to $2 million will not fund such projects.

“That's not a lot of money in terms of clean energy projects and the capital needed to get a project off the ground," said Mike Eisenfeld, Energy Manager at San Juan Citizens Alliance. "The hydrogen hub concept that New Mexico is pursuing, with three other states, was like $1.25 billion.”

Regarding the economics of clean energy, these grants from the Department of Energy are more likely to help small-scale projects, like a solar array for a municipal building.

Scott Clow, Environmental Programs Director for the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, is hopeful the tribe can secure one of these grants for a hydro project.

“We’re planning a Hydroelectric project on the Towoac Highline canal just north of town. And we've been considering and doing some negotiation on this project for over ten years. That is a scale of project that the Department of Energy funding would match with pretty well,” said Clow.

By 2024, the Ute Mountain Ute tribe will have ten hydropower plants capturing energy from pipes that drop 220 feet from the Towaoc Highline Canal. The plants will generate an estimated 18 kilowatts of power. The total cost of the project will be up to $6 million.

This story was published as part of the project Voices From the Edge of the Colorado Plateau. It seeks to cover underrepresented communities in the Four Corners. KSUT provides editing and web production for the project and its stories.

Clark Adomaitis is a Durango transplant from New York City. He is a recent graduate of the Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY, where he focused on reporting and producing for radio and podcasts. He reported sound-rich stories on the state of recycling and compost in NYC.
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