Just days before the winter solstice, the darkest moment of the year that heralds the endless energy of the sun, Picuris Pueblo went solar.
Officials from Picuris Pueblo along with other administrators, contractors and members of the local electric cooperative flipped the switch on the tribe's 1-megawatt solar array during a ribbon-cutting ceremony Monday (Dec. 18).
"Look at it in the scheme of things. Picuris is a small tribe, but one of the most sophisticated," said Luis Reyes, CEO of Kit Carson Electric Cooperative, the utility company behind the efforts to generate 100 percent of daytime energy needs in the Taos County area by 2022.
"At the end of the day, we pulled it off," Reyes said.
The solar project started several years ago with the idea of simply lowering electricity costs for tribal members. Now that the array is operational, there's more than enough electricity being generated to power all of the tribe's homes - about 110 of them, according to Picuris Pueblo Gov. Craig Quanchello.
The tribe's newly commissioned solar array isn't just a way to keep the lights on with renewable energy, but also a way to bring steady revenue into the community. The tribe owns the array, which is located a couple of hundred yards south of Vadito off of State Road 75. Under a 25-year power purchase agreement, Kit Carson will buy the energy.
The energy from the solar array doesn't exclusively power Picuris Pueblo, the smallest pueblo in New Mexico. Instead, the solar panels hook into the existing electricity lines along the highway and can power roughly 600 homes, or about one-third of all homes in the surrounding Peñasco Valley, Reyes said.
With the tribe's array of more than 3,700 individual panels now generating power, the co-op is now getting 26 percent of its daytime energy needs from the sun.
The endeavor was funded by a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, according to John Paul Romero, executive director of the Northern Pueblos Housing Authority, who praised the collaborative nature of the project and said this is the first DOE-funded solar project on Native American land in New Mexico.
Quanchello said the project took the tireless work of several previous governors and tribal councils to reach Monday's momentous occasion.
He told the crowd at Monday's gathering that the solar project proved challenging and in many ways "pushed the tribe to our limits."
Aside from the administrative hurdles of undertaking such a collaborative project, actually building it wasn't altogether easy.
Adam Harper, founder of Osceola Energy, an Albuquerque-based solar company, told The Taos News his company faced issues with building all of the solar panels' concrete counterweights on the hilly plot of land outside of Vadito. Despite the challenges, Harper said Picuris Pueblo's solar array is truly state of the art, with a 2017-model inverter that is extremely efficient and considered the "new norm" in the solar industry.
He said employees at Picuris Pueblo will soon receive training to maintain the system.
The project adds a shining capstone to the tribe's renewable energy developments, which started with a single panel on top of an elder's house and expanded significantly with the construction of a solar-powered, energy-neutral firehouse in 2015.
There's most likely more to come.
Quanchello said he wants to see two more solar arrays built, which would almost completely power the valley's energy needs and could remedy sometimes lengthy power outages. Getting large-scale batteries - the sort that would make the area truly self-reliant on its solar generation - is another vision he'd like to see made a reality.
"This is really a community project, a seed to push our other pueblos to go renewable," Quanchello said.