On a hot day in August, a crew of solar installers from Real Goods Solar pulled into a dusty driveway on the La Jolla Indian reservation on the rural northeastern edge of San Diego County, nearly two hours from San Diego. Doris Magante and her flock of grandchildren and great-grandchildren were waiting for them. They had, in fact, been waiting for more than a year. Since early 2011, GRID Alternatives has been working here with the La Jolla Band of Luiseño Indians to bring badly needed solar energy to the community. But with the long distances and uncharted regulatory process for solar installations on the reservation, progress has been slow. Now, thanks to Real Goods Solar, one of GRID Alternatives subcontracting partners and one of the only solar contractors working in this part of the state, systems are finally going up.
The La Jolla band is one of 14 Native American communities that GRID has worked with across California, helping reduce electricity costs for nearly 80 families in some of the most remote and underserved areas. The need for economic relief and employment opportunities in tribal communities is pronounced: despite some successful gaming tribes, a third of California Native Americans have incomes below the federal poverty line, and as a whole comprise the states poorest ethnic group. But many tribes take their responsibility to the environment very seriously.
"Native Americans have as a people been very concerned with natural resources, self-sufficiency, caring for the land," said Rob Roy, Environmental Director for the La Jolla tribe. "GRID's program has been so wonderful in assisting low-income people to go solar, which in turn increases their pride in their reservation and in their homes, and helps promote self-sufficiency."
For Ms. Magante its an easy win. A retiree who recently recovered from major surgery, she cares for as many as seven children at a time, some of them her own progeny, others fostered. When she first moved into her home, she was paying $400-$500 per month in utility costs, most of it from summer air conditioning. Now, thanks to a combination of energy efficiency measures and her new solar system, her bills will drop by up to 90 percent.
The homeowners are astounded by the savings, said Mr. Roy. The first homeowners bill dropped from $150-200 to $10, right when his kids were starting school. He was able to buy school supplies and new shoes for his daughter rather than spending that money on energy.
Ten families in the tribe have gone solar through GRID so far, for a projected savings of nearly $470,000 over the lifetime of their systems. And Real Goods, which has done six of the installations, is thrilled with the arrangement. "Real Goods Solar is always eager and honored to work with GRID Alternatives to bring solar electric power to the deserving residents of the local tribal organizations," said Real Goods Solars Construction Manager Aaron Ross." The challenges of working in these communities are real, but the rewards are greater than perhaps any other installations we perform."