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The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe's Planned Solar Farm


Photograph of a highway running through a desert with large rock formations in the background

The Ute Mountain Ute reservation is an expansive 553,000 acres of land stretching across the southwest corner of Colorado and into parts of San Juan County, New Mexico. The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe recently announced that they are leasing approximately 4,000 acres of tribal lands on a portion of their property in Colorado new Towaoc to the Canigou Group energy development company for the Sun Bear Solar Project.


The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe

For the last 70 years, the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe has been leasing their land for oil and gas extraction, but those revenues have declined in recent years, pushing the tribe to consider other ways to earn income from their property. Ute Mountain Ute chairman Manuel Heart said about the Sun Bear project at a public consultation meeting on February 9 (via KSUT), “We, as the Ute Mountain Ute tribe, had been a fossil fuel tribe with oil and gas for a long time, probably over 50 years. Today, with the changes in legislation, global warming, and climate change, you can see the impact of what’s happening to our world. So renewable is the new future right now. We want to be able to utilize the land that the government put us on – this reservation... and get as much as we can out of the resources and the land.”


The Sun Bear Solar Project

The up to 971 megawatt (MW) solar farm will sit on around 4,000 acres of Ute Mountain Ute tribal land, nine miles south of the tribe’s capital, Towaoc, in southwestern Colorado. The solar farm will be around eight miles long and one mile wide, and will feature approximately 2.2 million solar panels.


Timeline

As of April 2024, the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) is still reviewing the project’s environmental assessment. Construction is expected to kick off towards the end of 2024, and the solar farm is scheduled to come online in 2026. The solar farm will connect to the Western Area Power Administration power line, but who the electricity will be sold to has yet to be determined. The timeline of the proposed solar project includes 2-4 years of site preparation and construction, a 35-year project life/ lease term, and 2-4 years of decommissioning and reclamation.


Benefits

The Sun Bear Solar Project, a sustainable energy initiative, will not only bring benefits to the tribe by providing revenue along with clean and renewable power, but also uplift the local community through job opportunities and a reduced carbon footprint.


  • Job Creation: The Sun Bear Solar Project is expected to create up to 1,000 construction jobs, and 10-50 full-time jobs following the completion of the construction phase.


  • Clean Energy Production: Overall, the proposed project will generate an estimated 1,700 to 2,400 gigawatt-hours of electricity annually. This is about half as much power as the two remaining units of the nearby coal-fired Four Corners Power Plant, which is equivalent to greenhouse gas emissions from 214,363 homes' energy use for one year.

  • Revenue Generation: The Ute Mountain Ute Tribe will be getting paid lease payments by the solar developer for the use of the land. This long-term and predictable source of income will benefit the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe for the proposed 35-year lease term.


Challenges

In general, solar power faces one major hurdle: storage. Energy can only be generated from solar panels when the sun is shining, and the amount of energy varies depending on the sun angle, cloud cover and amount of daylight. The Sun Bear project will include battery storage, although the exact capacity will not be determined until customers are secured.


There are also challenges with local wildlife and vegetation. Over 400 federally threatened Mesa Verde cactuses were found in the area during surveys, and the burrowing owls, which are threatened within the state, were observed at five locations in the project area. However, the developers plan to create 200-meter “no-construction” buffers around the threatened cactuses and will remove occupied habitat or high-quality habitat from the project area.


Reservation land is held in trust by the federal government, and despite the fact that the tribe is a sovereign nation, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs must still sign off on the proposal. The Canigou Group has already completed the requisite environmental assessment, and is hoping to receive a Finding of No Significant Impact, or FONSI. BIA could instead decide there is a need for an Environmental Impact Statement, which would delay the project significantly. However, the goal is still to have the solar farm online by the end of 2026.


Utilizing Tribal Lands for Solar Energy

Tribal lands hold significant renewable energy production potential. Tribal land owners can list their properties for lease for renewable energy (solar, wind, carbon, EV charging, energy storage) for lease for free on LandGate's competitive marketplace to receive offers from a trusted network of nationwide energy developers. There are no fees or commissions, and no obligation to accept any offers that you receive through a listing.



Curious to learn more about the renewable energy potential of your tribe's specific properties? Contact us to book a call with a member of our team today.



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