Shine On

Cochiti Pueblo solarizes Hahn Center with the help of New Energy Economy

Cochiti Pueblo environmental technician Gene Ka-hee (right) celebrates bringing solar to his town with the assist from New Energy Economy alongside buildings and maintenance personnel Anthony Trujillo. | Courtesy New Energy Economy

      By Alicia Inez Guzman

Here in New Mexico, our sun is hard to miss, with mesas and mountains in every direction basking in the characteristic light we all know so well. But as far as an energy source, "we need a lot more outreach to talk about the benefits of solar power," Gene Ka-hee tells SFR. Ka-hee, environmental technician and general assistance program manager at Cochiti Pueblo, heard about New Energy Economy's Sol Not Coal Program about two years ago, and began taking the early steps toward solarizing one building in the Pueblo.

New Energy Economy, a nonprofit B Corporation, uses a two-pronged strategy: chipping away at what they call the
root cause of climate change (extractive energy) through legislation, plus community solarization projects like the one Cochiti Pueblo embarked upon. The organization raised the funds through grants, crowdfunding campaigns and private donors, while Ka-hee spent a significant amount of time researching which building was the best candidate based on age and an electrical study conducted with records from PNM. Ka-hee finally settled on the Hahn Center, the Pueblo's multipurpose community hub, bringing his findings to the Tribal Council accompanied by New Energy Economy Executive Director Mariel Nanasi.

Nanasi, a civil rights and criminal defense attorney, is a hardliner who leads the organization's legal interventions (challenging PNM on a number of grounds, for instance) and defines New Energy Economy's role in Northern New Mexico as bringing solarization "to people of color communities who've been left out of the solar revolution." The money saved on utility bills, she continues, "can be repurposed for that community in a way that aligns with their values."

Ka-hee describes the Tribal Council at Cochiti as "really impressed," and though a resolution was passed, it wasn't until January of this year that things really got rolling. The panels are now up and the Pueblo celebrates the installation on April 20 as part of an Earth Day event also geared toward garnering awareness about another environmental burr in the community: solid waste and illegal dumping.

The solarization at Cochiti Pueblo, a Keresan-speaking tribe of about 500 residents roughly 25 miles south of Santa Fe, is the biggest project New Energy Economy has funded to date, with 144 roof mount panels recently installed. That's more than triple that of other projects. Other organizations that have been solarized include the Crownpoint Chapter House in the Navajo Nation, Pueblo of Tesuque's Taytsugeh Oweengeh Intergenerational Center and Community Garden, Zona del Sol on Santa Fe's Southside, Monte Vista Organic Farm in the Española Valley, and Tewa Women United, also in Española. New Energy Economy has also helped solarize a number of fire departments in Tesuque and Chimayó and Fire Station #3 in Santa Fe.

During the Nixon administration, the Four Corners Area, where a large amount of coal mining and other extractive industries take place, was designated a national sacrifice zone—an area that is considered to be lost to the damages of industry and extraction. The consequences have indeed been manifold, even as plants begin to shut down.

"Since 2008, average residential [utility] rates have gone up 62 percent," Nanasi says, with rate payers footing the bill for infrastructural costs, maintenance, decommissioning and declamation of coal plants, contamination, and of course electricity. But with solar, once the panels are installed and paid off, there are no long-term costs and thus, she says, no "perverse incentive to continue to invest in archaic modes of energy production." There are some downsides to solar, however, namely that precious metals must be mined as materials for the panels.

Meanwhile, at the Celebration for Earth Day in Cochiti, Ka-hee says he plans to display enlarged versions of past and recent utility bills, which should reflect the new energy savings, to compare them in front of the community. Pueblo officials and Nanasi are scheduled to give speeches, and there are planned dances and presentations about recycling. Ka-hee also plans to lead an ongoing "Recycle-Bowl" program, part of the initiative Keep America Beautiful, through nearby Keres Elementary School.

Ka-hee doesn't know how much the power bill might drop, but it's clear that solarizing is part of a long game. And if there's a cloudy day, he says he expects to connect back to the grid. Otherwise, when the sun shines generously, as it often does, energy can be sold back to PNM. "When we make our prayers," Ka-hee says, "we make them for the universe, world and waters, and to keep all in balance, healthy and clean even before we pray for people."

Celebration for Earth Day:
10 am-2 pm Friday April 20. Free.
Hahn Center, Highway 22, Cochiti Pueblo.
For info, call New Energy Economy: 989-7262.