New Mexico’s efforts to solarize local venues paint a vision for a future of community energy self-sufficiency.

By April M. Short

Homelessness has been on the rise nationwide due to the economic impacts of COVID-19, and in New Mexico it was already climbing prior to the pandemic. New Mexico experienced a 27 percent rise in homelessness between 2018 and 2019, which is the “largest percentage increase” in homelessness in the country according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s “2019 Annual Homeless Assessment Report to Congress.”

One effort toward sustainable solutions to homelessness in New Mexico comes in the form of a unique community effort and fundraising campaign, which is working to bring solar power to Santa Fe’s 12-bed, 2.5-acre permanent housing for the homeless, Casa Milagro. The organization was founded in 1995 and works to bring supportive, therapeutic and safe housing to people who have experienced homelessness in New Mexico and beyond.

“We are part of a coalition of people who are responding to displaced people,” said Desirée Bernard, executive director of Casa Milagro, in a fundraising video about the project.

Casa Milagro helps house community members who have experienced homelessness and face mental health challenges and offers them support services. The effort to solarize the space seeks to make another part of the organization’s mission real: sustainability.

The plan is for the local solar company, Positive Energy Solar, to install a 16-kilowatt solar array at Casa Milagro. This installation size will cover the annual electricity usage of the home and eliminate the organization’s monthly electricity bills, allowing the organization to dedicate that portion of its budget to provide direct care and support for the residents.

In the beginning of the fundraising video, a resident named Cris is shown talking about how the Casa Milagro residents are “thrilled” that the home will become energy independent.

“We haven’t always been welcome in this community,” he says. “Now, the whole feeling toward Casa Milagro has changed and they’re looking to us for some sort of leadership, almost. They want to know how we did it, and how we turned a bad situation into this thriving, solar-driven community house. We are headed for the stars; we are going solar.”

Another resident, Nic, says in the video that “it’s about feeling safe and secure. You don’t feel that when you’re homeless because you don’t have family members. One of the first things to go is [the] trust of people, because how, in a society such as ours, can we even afford to have homeless people? Poverty at that level is violence. One of the things that this place [Casa Milagro] does is [it] pulls you out of the cauldron of fear. It makes you safe. It validates your existence as a human being, and it gives you free range to be a contributing member of society in a way that makes you feel good.”

The initial fundraising campaign to solarize Casa Milagro hoped to raise $57,000 in grassroots donations in 57 days. However, the day after the fundraising efforts were set to launch in March 2020, New Mexico’s Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham issued the first COVID-19 emergency orders, so the initiative paused. At the time of publication, Casa Milagro had succeeded in raising about a third of its funding for the project, according to Mariel Nanasi, the director of New Energy Economy (NEE), which is a New Mexico-based organization that supports alternatives to the exploitative models of energy generation. As part of the campaign to solarize Casa Milagro, NEE has been helping raise funds for the project, which is part of its larger SOL for All! effort that brings solar power to local community venues via grassroots fundraising initiatives.

“Desirée does such a beautiful job. They [Casa Milagro] have an organic garden, they have art, they have community, and offer all the ways that are healthy for people to live,” says Nanasi. “It’s a model place, and that’s why we wanted to support them.”

Since 2011, NEE has organized solarization campaigns across New Mexico annually, including projects for the Crownpoint Chapter House on Navajo Nation, the Taytsugeh Oweengeh Intergenerational Center at the Pueblo of Tesuque (including their senior center), the Hahn Community Center at the Pueblo de Cochiti, small farms, and multiple fire stations in the Santa Fe area, among others. Nanasi says the solarize projects serve a dual purpose as they demonstrate the viability of energy alternatives to the public and bring awareness to local communities and organizations to shed light on important social and environmental issues.

Nanasi says getting fire stations and firefighters on board with solar has helped to change some political attitudes and influence policy shifts around energy in New Mexico. After they solarized the Tesuque Fire Station in 2013, the station’s electricity bill dropped from more than $115 a month to $8.65 a month. After three months, the utility company sent the station an $11 check because they had overproduced solar energy. This piqued the interest of Santa Fe County officials. The county has since applied state funding toward solarizing fire station after fire station. In 2013 the commission also passed a resolution supporting community solarprojects.

“It’s not only that these projects are great in and of themselves, but that they have really led to policy changes,” Nanasi says. “And I will tell you this: the only solar project that former Republican Governor [Susana] Martinez ever allowed for capital outlay was Santa Fe County’s solar project because the firemen asked for it.”

After each solar installation is complete, a community celebration takes place, and Nanasi says those celebrations, as well as other opportunities for community engagement that solar projects offer, have had a ripple effect when it comes to solarization projects.

“Once you do one [solar project] and people can see it, it exposes the vision of what’s possible, and then people are like, ‘Let’s do another one, and another one,’” she says.

New Energy Economy’s next solar energy project is the Montessori-influenced, nonprofit Keres Children’s Learning Center. The center is oriented around teaching Cochiti Pueblo children and families their Indigenous language of Keres, and preserving their Indigenous culture and heritage, and teachings. Nanasi says these solarization projects lend themselves well to schools, since they use electricity primarily during the daytime, when solar power is strongest. She can envision local solarize projects cropping up across the country and beyond and says since the model their organization uses is centered on crowdfunding through Indiegogo, it lends itself easily to replication.

In October 2020, the UN warned that continued inaction on the part of world leaders to reverse the climate crisis will result in the planet becoming an “uninhabitable hell” for millions of people. Given the worsening climate crisis, the necessity for an alternative, less extractive and damaging sources of energy is dire, and Nanasi says their organization’s theory of change is a combination of fighting against the expansion of the oil, gas, coal and nuclear energy industries, and demonstrating the vision of what’s possible at the local scale to move society toward 100 percent renewable energy.

“We’ve won cases in court to fight the utility [Public Service Company of New Mexico] here,” she says. “They’ve asked [for permission] to build new gas plants three times, and we’ve beaten them every single time. We’re focused not only on saving people money, but also opposing more investment in fossil fuels. We have to resist extreme extraction, which is what our country is still, unfortunately, doing in every way. Not only are [energy companies] literally extracting uranium, coal, gas and oil from the ground with demonstrable devastation and destruction, but they’re extracting the wealth of the people and giving it to the one percent. Energy companies are [some of] the wealthiest companies on the planet. They have more money than most countries, even countries combined. And what do we get from that? We get not only climate destruction, but we get the undermining of democracy.”

She says fighting against what’s wrong is only half of what’s necessary for change.

“We also need to expose the vision of what’s possible,” she says. “We’re a tiny little nonprofit, but we’ve been doing these solar projects year after year because we want to go to localized, decentralized energy that creates self-sufficiency.”

This article was produced by Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute.

April M. Short is an editor, journalist and documentary editor and producer. She is a writing fellow at Local Peace Economy, a project of the Independent Media Institute. Previously, she served as a managing editor at AlterNet as well as an award-winning senior staff writer for Santa Cruz, California’s weekly newspaper. Her work has been published with the San Francisco Chronicle, In These Times, Salon and many others.