Clean energy produced on Navajo land could help power Los Angeles

LOS ANGELES – In a city renowned for its green policies, Prius drivers and biodegradable straws, it was only a matter of time before officials would vote to move away from coal powered electricity.

To transition to clean energy, the city sold its shares of a coal-powered generating station on the Navajo Nation in 2016, ending a decades-long relationship.

What seemed like a bright new sustainable future for Los Angeles presented a harsh reality for the tribe, whose members relied on jobs at the Navajo Generating Station, which shut down completely in November. The generating station near Page contributed $51 million a year to northern Arizona and southern Utah.

Last month, the Los Angeles City Council voted to explore ways to continue that energy partnership without funding a generating station that once was the third largest carbon emitter in the U.S. If deemed feasible after a 30-day evaluation, renewable energy soon will travel from the reservation to Southern California. The motion was passed and finalized by Mayor Eric Garcetti.

“We’re talking about solar energy, wind energy, in other words, completely transitioning from coal into renewable resources,” said Mitch O’Farrell, the City Council member who presented the motion. O’Farrell, who is the first member of the council to belong to a federally recognized tribe – the Wyandotte Nation – said he wore a beaded bolo tie for the occasion.

Los Angeles needs other sources of renewable energy to reach the goals outlined in the 2019 Green New Deal, which aims to make the city 55% dependent on renewable energy by 2025 and fully dependent on renewables by 2045, O’Farrell said.

His proposal also acknowledges the economic hardship the Navajo Nation faces with the closure of the generating station, where 90% of the 433 employees were Navajo. The generating station officially closed on Nov. 18, which also negatively affected coal-mining operations on the reservation.

Navajo Nation President Jonathan and his administration made the trip to Los Angeles to advocate for continued energy partnerships at the city council meeting on Feb. 19. (Photo by Sarah Donahue/Cronkite News)

Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, who attended the LA council meeting approving the proposal, hopes it will compensate for an estimated $30-50 million revenue loss for the tribe.

“We are resilient people,” Nez told the council. “We want to be the leaders in renewable energy in Indian Country.”

The continued partnership would bring wind and solar powered energy to Los Angeles while fostering economic development for the Navajo Nation, the motion states.

“This is a win-win for everyone,” Nez said.

The council’s unanimous vote started the process of a 30-day feasibility study by Los Angeles’ Department of Water and Power that will evaluate potential costs and benefits for electricity ratepayers.

It’s likely to be cost-effective for Angelenos, O’Farrell said, as LA’s Department of Water and Power still has ownership of the transmission lines linking the reservation and the city.

“The idea is to continue that partnership, but it would be directly between the Navajo Nation and LA for the continued use of those lines,” said Nicole Horseherder, executive director of Tó Nizhóní Ání’, a grassroots organization that advocates for environmental protections and responsible use of natural resources of the Black Mesa area on the reservation.

“The only difference would be that it would be Navajo renewable energy power that would be put on those transmission lines,” she said.

The Navajo Generating Station

The 2,250-megawatt Navajo Generating Station a few miles east of Page began producing electricity in the 1970s. Its owners ended operations in November because the plant was deemed no longer economically viable.

The generating station and the Kayenta Mine that fed it coal contributed nearly $1.3 billion to the Navajo and Hopi economies since 1987, according to data from Coconino County.

The mine, which is adjacent to Hopi and Navajo land in northeastern Arizona, and the generating station were part of a “mine-to-mouth” operation. The coal traveled from the mine to the generating station 78 miles away via train to produce power for California, Arizona and Nevada.

Without the need for coal, the mine closed, too, as the generating station was its only customer.

The costly nature of coal led to the plant’s closure, according to Scott Harelson, spokesman for the Salt River Project, one of Arizona’s biggest utility companies. SRP has partial ownership of the generating station along with Tucson Electric Power and NV Energy.

LA’s Department of Water and Power had been a shareholder until it sold its 21.2% ownership to SRP in July 2016 to move toward clean energy.

In 2017, all the utility owners voted to shut down the generating station.

The representitaves of the Navajo Nations attended the Los Angeles City Council meeting on Feb. 19 to advocate for Councilmember Mitch O’Farrell’s motion to bring renewable Navajo energy to the city. (Photo by Sarah Donahue/Cronkite News)

Loss for the Navajo Nation

There has been a long relationship between Los Angeles and the Navajo Nation, Nez told Cronkite News, and the new agreement would allow that partnership to last “rather than going different ways with bad – I don’t know if I should say it – bad blood.”
Not even a year’s notice was given before the power plant closed, Nez said, and it closed weeks earlier than expected.

“We didn’t know what to do,” Nez said. “There was no transition time.”
In the first fiscal year after the closures of the plant and mine, the Navajo Nation expects income losses of about $40 million – a 23% drop, according to the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.

“There are members of the Navajo Nation who would have preferred to see the plant operate because of the well-paying jobs, including the Hopi Nation who relied heavily on the earnings from the Kayenta Coal Mine,” the SRP’s Harelson said. The average salary for workers ranged from $70,000 to $74,000, according to data from Coconino County.

SRP offered new jobs to all 433 of their plant workers, Harelson said. Of those 433 plant workers, 12 stayed in the area to decommission the generating station and 284 redeployed to other energy projects across Arizona.

Nez said that has spurred a migration from Page as former plant workers move elsewhere.
Beyond jobs, people across the reservation are struggling to stay warm during the winter.
“With the closure of the plant and the mine, people have not been able to access basic heating resources,” Horseherder said.

Martin Pasqualetti, professor at Arizona State University’s School of Geographical Sciences and Urban Planning, said he has taken students on field trips to the Kayenta Mine and generating station since the ’70s.

While this operation brought in significant amounts of money for the Navajo, “anybody who was paying attention would know that these power plants don’t last forever,” he said, noting the high cost of implementing proper emission-control standards.

Pasqualetti wasn’t aware of the negotiations between LA and the Navajo Nation, but he said the tribe is always looking for markets for electricity.

“The bottom line is they are trying to find jobs and trying to find substitutions for the powerplant,” he said.

A future in clean energy

“Right now, throughout the world, we’re not taking care of our lands,” Nez said. “So there is some traditional knowledge that we can incorporate in this type of transition.”

The Navajo Nation has two solar energy projects generating 55 megawatts of clean energy, Nez said, generating revenue and providing electricity for Navajos with plans to expand further.

The 127-megawatt Dry Lake Wind Power Project has been operational since 2009 and plans for a new 477-megawatt wind farm were approved in December by The Navajo County board of supervisors.

The best way to take care of Navajo lands, he said, is to utilize what the creator has provided: wind and sunlight. California’s demand for clean energy presents an opportunity for the Navajo to continue their relationship, he added.

“We’re not talking about a handout,” Nez said. “We’re talking about a hand up with all the partners in the Southwest who are wanting to purchase renewable energy.”

Sygourney Longknife Williams, Cheyenne L.E. Phoenix and Maya Sanchez, attended the Los Angeles City Council meeting on Feb. 19 to support the motion for Navajo clean energy. (Photo by Sarah Donahue/Cronkite News)

O’Farrell said Los Angeles’ attitude on sustainability and its ability to influence is its “badge of honor.” Contributing to the renewable movement and thinking outside the city limits hopefully will play an outside role in slowing the effects of climate change, he said.

“I hope that we’re entering into a new age of enlightenment,” O’Farrell said. “Because it’s going to take everyone everywhere to pull together to slow the effects of climate change.”

The Navajo people and reservation have been “overlooked for a very long time,” he said, adding that a continued partnership with Los Angeles would help the tribe take another step toward self-determination and self-sufficiency.

Nez predicted “a great future for both LA, the (Navajo) Nation and the globe as a whole.”

The Navajo government and people, he said, “cannot view ourselves as victims.”

Although Native Americans were almost completely obliterated after Europeans arrived in the New World, “we are still here.”

Looking to the future and creating a plan to succeed despite hardships faced in the past, Nez said, is the “best revenge.”

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability, a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News, Arizona PBS, KJZZ, KPCC, Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal.

Getting Pumped: How LA Uses Two Big Lakes to Store Energy like a Giant Battery

LOS ANGELES – If L.A. is going to stop burning fossil fuels by 2045 — a key goal of Mayor Eric Garcetti’s proposed Green New Deal — it must store a lot more of the excess solar and wind energy it produces during the day so it doesn’t have to rely on gas and coal energy to power the city when the sun sets and the wind dies.

There’s a growing focus on building big batteries — for example, the kind that use lithium ions. But L.A. needs energy storage that is far bigger than any traditional battery.

And it’s found one.

The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power has turned two big lakes into a monster battery capable of storing enough energy to power tens of thousands of homes.

It involves using the excess wind and solar power L.A.’s renewable energy sites produce during the day to pump water from Castaic Lake uphill 7.5 miles to Pyramid Lake. Then, late in the day, when the sun goes down and the city’s energy demand spikes, the water gets run downhill through hydroelectric generators at Castaic Lake.

The next day, the cycle starts over again. The same 10,000 acre-feet of water can recirculate over and over, getting pumped uphill during the day and coming downhill at night to power the city.

It’s called pumped storage, and the plant at Castaic is one of the largest such plants in the western United States, but maybe not for long.

LADWP is looking at building an even larger plant at Hoover Dam, so this form of energy storage, if replicated, could be a key to L.A. weaning itself off of fossil fuels.

So Let’s Tour the Castaic Pumped Storage Plant

It’s hidden away — kind of like a superhero’s secret lair — behind locked gates at the end of a winding mountain ridge road off I-5.

Castaic Pumped Storage Plant as seen from a mountain ridge near Ridge Route Road. (Photo by Sharon McNary/KPCC/LAist)

Once you’re inside the gates, the first thing you notice are six gargantuan pipes that flow water from Pyramid Lake 7.5 miles down to Castaic Lake. Water is pumped back uphill in the same 30-foot-diameter pipes.

The pressure is 25 times the force of the water coming out of your home faucet.

Here’s another look at those massive pipes from a different perspective, way up on the mountain looking down at Castaic Lake.

These massive pipes, called penstocks, move water up and down between Castaic and Pyramid Lakes. This is a view looking downhill at Castaic Lake. The Elderberry Forebay at the base of the pipes is part of Castaic Lake. It holds up to 10,000 acre-feet of water that can be recirculated between the two lakes. (Photo by Andrew Cullen for LAist)

Time to head down into the guts of the plant. We step off the elevator to a balcony overlooking a giant windowless chamber four stories tall.

The six turbines are in a vast windowless chamber. The pressure of the water coming downhill in the giant pipes spins the hydroelectric turbines, generating power for Los Angeles. More than 50 LADWP employees keep the plant running.

Below you can see two of the six turbine units. Unit 3 on the left, is covered and is ready to produce electricity as water spins the turbines inside it. Unit 4, on the right, is open for maintenance.

Unit 3, left, produces electricity while Unit 4 sits open for maintenance at Castaic Hydroelectric Power Plant in Castaic, Calif. (Photo by Andrew Cullen for LAist)

The six turbine units look like giant spools sunk into the floor. They put out enough energy, when they are all spinning, to power 83,000 homes over the course of a day. Their output is huge in comparison to LADWP’s largest chemical battery, which is a 20 megawatt lithium ion battery, which can power about 600 homes over a day.

Here is a view of the turbine in Unit 5. It’s been lifted partially above the floor of the turbine room. Each turbine weighs 550 tons. To lift them up takes two cranes that move the length of the room.

Castaic Hydroelectric Power Plant has six reversible 250,000 kilowatt turbines. The plant provides power for Los Angeles during peak use periods. (Photo by Andrew Cullen for LAist)

It takes a lot of pipes and plumbing to control the flow of water in this pumped storage plant. We descend several flights of stairs to get to the bottom of the plant to see the pumps.

At the very bottom of the plant, we’re 90 feet under the water level of the lake.

Massive machinery controls the flow of water through the hydroeletric plant at Castaic Hydroelectric Power Plant in Castaic, Calif. (Photo by Andrew Cullen for LAist)

The pumps are what makes this plant different from an ordinary hydroelectric plant. There are six giant pumps — each with a shiny silver piston arm. They are pushing water back up the mountain to Pyramid Lake in the same 30-foot-diameter pipes that brought it down to Castaic Lake.

Recirculating the water like this takes a lot of energy — but that’s okay. DWP has more wind and solar energy during the day than it can use. So rather than disconnect the solar panels and windmills, or sell the energy cheaply to someone else, DWP uses the extra energy to move the water uphill to Pyramid Lake.

Once the water is waiting uphill at Pyramid Lake, it’s stored energy, ready to flow back downhill to generate energy when L.A. needs it, late in the day.

A pump pulls water from 90 feet under Lake Castaic into the Castaic Hydroelectric Power Plant in Castaic, Calif., and sends it uphill to Pyramid Lake. (Photo by Andrew Cullen for LAist)

This battery-like combination — pumps and turbines — can be built very big. And they use the most reliable force on Earth — gravity.

Elderberry Forebay is a section of Castaic Lake that holds the water that gets recirculated between Pyramid Lake and Castaic to produce electricity.

Runoff from Castaic Hydroelectric Power Plant enters Elderberry Lake, which holds water that can be pumped back up to Pyramid Lake and reused to produce electricity. (Photo by Andrew Cullen for LAist)

Assistant general manager Reiko Kerr says they could pump water from Lake Mohave 20-some miles upstream to Lake Mead to run through Hoover Dam’s giant hydroelectric turbines.

“You already have the dam, you have the generators, you have the transmission lines — you basically need a set of pumps and pipelines,” Kerr said.

The eventual size depends on the number of other agencies that might invest in the project.

“That upper reservoir is huge — Lake Mead — so you could store power in the form of water up there for potentially months, and seasonally,” she said.

The Hoover Dam pumped storage project could come online by 2030, adding to the energy storage L.A. needs to get to 100% renewable energy.

Reaping Rhythms: LA River’s Invasive Reeds Find an Artistic Purpose

LOS ANGELES – The L.A. River is full of things that, one way or another, people put there – candy wrappers, plastic bags, shopping carts, concrete, clothing, goldfish, pigeons and the giant, invasive arundo donax reeds.

Under his huge straw hat, Steve Appleton chops at a huge dry mat of arundo reeds. Three or four good thwacks, and he’s sheared an eight-foot stalk from the plant’s thick rhizome.

The rhizome, which looks like a giant piece of ginger or an armor-plated potato, is the plant’s root. It spreads underground, sending up tall, green stems like bamboo shoots that form dense stands and account for a lot of the greenery in the soft-bottomed portion of the L.A. River that flows through Elysian Valley. “A lot” because of arundo’s incredibly rapid growth: these stalks can grow between 1.5 and 4 inches a day. “On a hot day I swear you can see them growing,” says Appleton.

Because the reed grows so fast it tends to crowd out other plants, including the native species that are the focus of plans to “restore” the River’s habitat. The invasive plant also takes up space in the River’s channel, which somewhat impairs the River’s capacity to contain floods. This is why the US Army Corps of Engineers has been clearing arundo reeds from the River, using pesticides like Monsanto’s controversial Roundup.

Appleton is here with students from Cal State Northridge to suggest a different approach.

Cal State Northridge students Genevieve Hilburn and Stephen Crews gather arundo to create musical instruments. (Photo by Spencer Robins/KCET)

The shoots they harvest will become flutes, percussion instruments and sculptures, to be used in a performance of original music and dance at CSUN’s all-day festival April 5th. The project, called “Future Currents” and organized by CSUN’s Younes and Soraya Nazarian Center for the Performing Arts (“The Soraya”), is meant to bring CSUN’s arts students into the conversation around the city’s, county’s and state’s various river “revitalization” projects. In the words of the Soraya’s director Thor Steingraber, the point is to “raise our hand and say the arts have a place at that table.”

The lead artists for the project are Appleton, a sculptor, and choreographer Lynn Neumann. Appleton is a community activist as a well as an artist. He’s lived near the river for 18 years and has played an active role in the planning process for the river’s redevelopment. (He also owns and operates LA River Kayak Safari.) Neumann’s dance work has long been focused on ecological issues; one of her most well-known pieces was a long-term project that helped clean plastic trash off Coney Island beaches. The two artists have been working with CSUN students for months to create dance, music and sculptural pieces for the April 5th performance.

A trellis made out of arundo, an invasive reed species harvested out of the L.A. River. (Photo by Spencer Robins/KCET)

The project’s leaders are careful to say that it doesn’t have an agenda — it doesn’t advance a particular vision for the river’s future. The point is for teachers and students to make art and share it with the public. But part of what the students are learning to do is use this artistic practice to direct the public’s attention in ways that could shape river policy.

That makes them part of a long tradition. Arguably, it’s only because of artists that the idea of “revitalizing” the LA River (or just the idea of the river, period) is in the public consciousness at all. In 1986, Lewis MacAdams and several artist friends cut through a chain-link fence on the river’s edge, walked down the channel, and asked for the river’s permission to “speak for it in the human realm.” MacAdams went on to found Friends of the Los Angeles River, whose “40-year art project” is to draw attention to the possibility of a renewed river. CSUN alum Judith Baca’s Great Wall of Los Angeles is another model — pedagogical and creative — for “Future Currents”: Baca designed the massive mural, which depicts “the history of ethnic peoples of California from prehistoric times to the 1950s,” and hundreds of young Angelenos painted it. The question is, now that the River is squarely a matter of public and political concern, will artistic projects like these continue to play a role in determining its future?

A drumstick made of arundo gets some percussion practice on a rock. (Photo by Spencer Robins/KCET)

One thing art can do is call attention to material questions about the river that might otherwise pass below public notice. For example: what to do with the rocks? In the fall, Appleton noticed that the Army Corps of Engineers, which controls the river’s concrete channel, was removing boulders from it. They didn’t give the public any notice, but Appleton made calls and learned that the rocks were being shipped to a landfill far outside the city. Appleton was shocked — he described himself as “emotionally attached” to the rocks, which he believes were carried into the river by streams flowing from the San Gabriel Mountains. (Locally sourced rocks, in other words.) So, he spent two weeks calling the Mayor’s office, the Army Corps, the firm in charge of designing the G2 parcel — while Neumann considered choreographing a human-chain dance project to remove the rocks by hand. In the end, they convinced the City to ask the Corps to store the rocks at the river-adjacent Taylor Yard instead, where they can be used as landscape when the Yard eventually becomes a park.

Think of it as a pre-art project — gathering material for a future creation. Neumann wants people to think of lots of river issues that way. “There’s gonna be a lot of concrete coming out of that river,” as the city’s revitalization plans go forward. “That’s a usable material! So what happens to it?”

Learn more about the ecosystems in Los Angeles in “Earth Focus” Urban Ark.

The arundo raises other questions, which would have been easy to overlook. One is how to value the plants and animals that live in the river now. Neumann points out that even deciding what to count as native or nonnative in a place as human-impacted as the L.A. river is complex. “At this point, what’s native? How far back do you look?” Arundo is probably destructive enough to other plants that it should be removed, but even so, once a species has been labeled “invasive,” it’s easy to think of it as having no value. In fact, says Steingraber, “arundo is an ancient reed with an ancient purpose”: native to the Mediterranean, it has been used for thousands of years to make wind instruments like the Turkish ney. The ney will be a central part of the Future Currents performance: L.A. musician Danny Shamoun will play ney music alongside original works by CSUN students. By following this kind of tradition, says Neumann, “we’re trying to show that arundo is a very useful material. It might be harmful in this particular environment, but it could be harvested and put to good use.”

The other issue is that thinking of nonnative plants like arundo in purely negative terms could have real, destructive consequences. Valuing only native vegetation has led the Corps to remove successful nonnative habitat in the past, and strictly speaking the Army Corps’ policy is that, for the sake of flood control, “the channel is designed to be maintained free of vegetation.” It’s only due to their “limited funds” that the Corps focuses on removing nonnative plants. But Appleton argues “this whole River movement is based on people’s direct, often surprising experience of the natural environment that’s there. Planning that contemplates removing this habitat” — or that removes arundo using methods with potential environmental side effects — “would run counter to the public will and the original desires of the whole project” of renewing the river.

By contrast, finding value in arundo speaks to another, quieter history. People living along the river in Frogtown (people whose place there might be threatened by the gentrification that river revitalization could bring) have been making use of arundo for years. Several homes there have garden trellises made from the dried-out reed. Harvesting and making makes for a very different kind of relationship with place. Appleton hopes the Future Currents project will encourage more of this intimate, hands-on thinking — that it will “expand the ownership of the river” beyond the planners and help people think of the river “as our own backyard. “Lewis Macadams said the L.A. River was a forty-year art project. We’re trying to keep the project going.”

This story was first published by KCET on March 27, 2019. You can find the original report here.