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Augustine Band takes green path

Beneath a radiant sun, the Augustine Band of Cahuilla Indians celebrated a solar energy first for Indian Country. Augustine tribal chairwoman Mary Ann Green cut the ribbon Wednesday on the first photovoltaic renewable energy system on a California Indian reservation to be approved by the U.S. Department of Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs. By Debra Gruszecki, The Desert Sun

Beneath a radiant sun, the Augustine Band of Cahuilla Indians celebrated a solar energy first for Indian Country.

Augustine tribal chairwoman Mary Ann Green cut the ribbon Wednesday on the first photovoltaic renewable energy system on a California Indian reservation to be approved by the U.S. Department of Interior's Bureau of Indian Affairs.

The 1.1-megawatt solar energy system, also described by U.S. Energy Department officials as one of the largest among Indian nations, will produce 1,900 megawatts annually from some 15,000 solar panel modules behind Augustine Casino.

That's enough solar energy production over one year to:

Remove 200 passenger vehicles from Riverside County highways.

Provide electricity to partially power the casino venture and, with banked energy the plant produces, provide electricity for 125 to 185 houses.

Eliminate carbon sequestered by 300 acres of pine trees.

Green, who has noted in the past that the $7 million solar park will enable the tribe to reduce its use of Imperial Irrigation District energy by about 25 percent, on Wednesday said her ancestors were smiling down on the tribe and the Coachella Valley.

Solar energy that isn't used will be sent into a grid for clean energy use elsewhere.

“This is not only a great investment, but will create a better environment for everyone,” she said.

Les Ramirez, legal counsel for the Augustine Band, said the project developed in partnership with Epuron, an American subsidiary of Conergy AG of Hamburg, Germany, is a marvelous example of how the tribe partnered with multiple government agencies, the public utility and private developers to eliminate the nation's reliance on foreign oil and burn less fossil fuel.

Lots of interest

The word is out that a project like this can be built, said Gary Ambach, superintendent of demand management for Imperial Irrigation District.

“There's been a groundswell of interest in using energy wisely,” Ambach said as he thanked Green for her vision and presented the tribe with a $2.6 million rebate check to help finance the solar installation.

The Department of Energy also gave the tribe a grant that covered a portion of the costs involved in developing the tribe's Energy Resource Conservation Plan, a required first step for the undertaking. National Renewable Energy Laboratory, Sandia National Labs, also provide tech assistance.

IID officials called this plant the cleanest of all energies.

“It's an important component of the tribe's effort to eliminate its overall energy footprint, and is consistent with our centuries-old commitment to living in harmony with nature,” Green said in a statement.

Samir Dube, of Epuron, who oversaw the project that was designed and built by Ecostream Inc., said there is considerable international interest in solar energy development in the valley.

“The desert climate, blue skies and relatively intense sunshine makes it one of the best solar resources in the United States,” Dube said.

Tribal nations from one end of the valley to the other have expressed interest in developing energy programs, BIA official Jim Fletcher said.

“We've thrown a pebble in the pond that I'm sure will ripple across Indian Country,” said Michael Lombardi, Augustine Casino gaming commissioner.

Todd Hooks, economic development director for the Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians, which has a demonstration project in the Indian Canyons and is studying many forms of green energy, said the valley has a bright future in renewable energy.

“I'm incredibly proud that the Augustine Band has taken the first step to build a solar field,” Hooks said. “In Indian Country, we feel strongly about stewardship and preservation of our natural resources for future generations.”