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.

Navajo, SRP Take Steps To Make Solar A Priority

The Navajo Nation is taking steps to make solar energy a priority, with the help of Salt River Project.

Salt River Project seeks proposals for up to 200 megawatts of solar development on the Navajo Nation. That energy will be transmitted to SRP customers in the Valley.

Proposed projects must be in operation by December 2023, so they can take advantage of federal tax incentives.

The contract will help SRP reach its goal of 1,000 megawatts of new solar energy in the next five years. The utility has committed to reducing carbon dioxide emissions by 90% by 2050.

“It’s the beginning of a new era for the Navajo Nation,” Navajo President Jonathan Nez said. “We recognize that coal-based energy provided many benefits for the workers and their families, but times are changing and energy development is changing.”

In November, SRP and other utilities shut down the Navajo Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant, in favor of natural gas and renewable energy.

“We are looking to become the leader in renewable energy throughout the Southwest and Indian Country,” Nez said.

As Plant Faces Closure, New Mexico City Weighs Bet on Clean Coal Technology

FARMINGTON, N.M. – Nestled in the heart of San Juan County, Farmington has a population of about 45,000, making it a bustling hub in rural northwestern New Mexico. It is the largest city for hundreds of miles, and its major highway is a two-lane road. Bordering the Navajo Nation, Farmington is also home to abundant natural beauty, cultural diversity and an economy that has stably rested on two major coal-based employers.

That once-solid economic base is shakier all the time. San Juan County houses two predominantly coal-fired power plants, the San Juan Generating Station (SJGS) and the Four Corners Generating Station. While the oil and gas industry has undergone cyclical booms and busts in the region, coal has been the steady economic foundation for decades.

Then, on March 22, 2019, New Mexico’s governor, the Democrat Michelle Lujan Grisham, signed the Energy Transition Act into law. It requires the state’s utilities to be 100 percent carbon-free by 2045. To meet the new standard, the Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM), the majority owner of the San Juan Generating Station, plans to shut down the plant as it moves away from coal.

Next to the electric power station is the San Juan coal mine, which exclusively provides coal to the plant. At its peak, the mine sent over 7 million tons a year to the plant. (Photo by Vladimir Choloupka for …& The West)

According to the utility, the San Juan station will likely close its doors in three years’ time. The loss of the station will be mean much more to the community than the 497 megawatts of electricity it generates: the plant provides jobs directly and indirectly to about 1,600 workers, some 27 percent of them from the Navajo Nation.

The announcement about the pending closure of the plant — and the dramatic loss of work in the nearby mine that supplies its coal — is a clear sign of the trend away from coal in the greater Four Corners region. Arizona’s Navajo Generating Station is slated to retire in 2019, the Four Corners plant in 2031, the Magna, Utah plant in 2025, and the Nucla, Colorado plant in 2022.

Arizona’s Navajo Generating Station is slated to retire in 2019, the Four Corners plant in 2031, the Magna, Utah plant in 2025, and the Nucla, Colorado plant in 2022. (Map by Bill Lane Center for the American West)

The backdrop of this trend is the upside-down economics of coal plants, which were once cheaper than most rival energy sources. But that advantage has been largely nullified by the rise of natural gas, now plentiful since the advent of fracking, and the more recent price decreases spurring the rise of renewables like solar and wind power. The economics are powerful, but so is the specter of climate change, which is exacerbated by the tons of carbon dioxide emitted by power plants burning coal.

San Juan station is the largest source of air pollution in the state, releasing over 13 million tons of carbon dioxide a year. It is also expensive to maintain and can no longer produce energy at competitive prices.

Farmington’s leadership is pushing for the adoption of carbon-capture technology at the plant in hopes to keep it running by giving it something else to sell. If that does not work and the plant closes, a drastic change is looming for San Juan County’s way of life. It will, disproportionately affect tribal members.

A PNM representative said, “these power plants are an important part of their local communities. That is why the Energy Transition Act provides for not only a transition plan for the workers but also $20 million for the local community.” These funds will be used for workforce retraining, economic development, and will support the department focused on Indian affairs.

A Tear in the Fabric of Farmington’s Life

Timothy Kienitz, left, is principal of Farmington High School. (Photos by Vladimir Choloupka for …& The West)

“It’s become part of the fabric and the culture of not only Farmington but also the Navajo reservation,” Timothy Kienitz, principal of Farmington High School, said of the plant. Bordering the reservation to the West, Navajos make up 41 percent of the high school’s student body. “There are generations of families who have worked at the plant and they see that as a source of pride. If that goes away, then all of a sudden you take away that self-sufficiency,” Kienitz said.

A foreshadowing of how plant closures could affect the city came when two of SJGS’s four coal-fired generators were retired in 2017. “We did see a higher number of free and reduced lunches.” Kienitz said. Now, 52 percent of his students receive free or reduced-price lunch.

The San Juan Mine is the sole provider of coal for SJGS, so each enterprise is the lifeblood of the other. Bob Green, a supervisor at the mine for more than 17 years, was one of its first hires when it opened in 2000. “The mine provided the coal to the power plant for two million customers and 80 percent of the electricity that PNM supplied. We needed to mine about 6.5 to 7 million tons a year to supply the power plant. When all four units were running it burned about 9,500 tons per day,” Green said.

Jerry Benally is a heavy equipment operator at the mine and a member of the Navajo Nation. (Photo by Danielle Nguyen/…& The West)

Green added that working at the mine created a sense of camaraderie, a closely-bound community that would be unrooted if employees had to find a job far away. “Mining is inherently difficult, with changing conditions and changing weather,” Green said. “You pull together and you take pride in that. You become family as important as your own family at home.”

“We’re all like brothers and sisters here,” said Kenny Benally, a member of the Navajo Nation and a heavy equipment operator at the mine. “It’s been 10 hours out of the day with one another so we all get along.”

According to PNM, about 27 percent of its employees at the generating station are Navajo. On the Navajo Nation, 43 percent of residents live below the poverty line. “The Navajo Nation has an unemployment rate of almost 50 percent, and we are going to add to that,” said Mike Stark, San Juan’s county manager.

“It’s really going to take a hit on the Navajo Nation,” said Kenny Benally. “It’s going to be hard for everybody on and off the reservation.”

Frank Maisano, a senior principal at Bracewell, said, “It would be a ding on the Four Corners region, but it would really hurt the Navajo people. These are skilled labor union jobs that pay well and if they go away it will hurt people that can least afford it.”

In many households on the reservation, multiple generations live together. “In many cases it may be one person who works at that power plant or in that mine who is not just taking care of their family but also taking care of extended family,” said Farmington Mayor Nate Duckett. “If saving the world means that we have to kill humans to do it, then I don’t know if I want to save the world.”

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Employees would not be the only ones affected by the closure of the plant and mine. The whole city of Farmington would face a wrenching adjustment. A study commissioned by Four Corners Economic Development last year estimated that closing the plant would lead to more than $105 million in lost wages. As Bob Green explained, “A lot of these highly-paid people have brought in things to the community that we wouldn’t normally have.” Green’s wife works at the medical facility in Farmington.

“The mine and power plant workers go to Farmington and buy a lot,” Kenny Benally added.

If the plant closes, many of the county’s longtime residents may be forced to move away, finding it harder to support their families. “Most of the people that work at the mine are high school graduates. Those people can make really good money. A starting person could make upwards of $65,000 a year,” Green said. “This game is political, legislative, public sentiment and economic. Things out of their control. And time is running out.”

Jerry Benally, another heavy equipment operator at the mine and a member of the Navajo Nation, is already looking for jobs. Without a college degree, it is difficult to find one that pays as well as the mine. Only seven percent of Navajo Nation members have a college degree. “There are jobs out there, but they are minimum wage, up to maybe $20 an hour if you’re lucky,” he said. “I already told my wife to plan on it shutting down in 2022.”

New Futures Without the Generating Station — or Maybe With It

Lake Farmington is a popular swimming and boating spot. (Photo by Vladimir Choloupka for …& The West)

One possible future sees Farmington as a depopulated ghost town. But depending on changes in circumstances and the adaptability of residents, other futures may await.

Moving forward, northwest New Mexico has potential for renewable energy development as well as outdoor recreation. A new water park, Brookside Bay, is already under construction.

Another possibility for the town is supported by Farmington’s leaders: keeping the San Juan Generating Station open by capturing and storing its abundant carbon emissions underground.

“A lot of those in the legislature say we are pro-coal, anti-renewable,” said County Manager Mike Stark. “The reality is that we want to hang on to those good-paying jobs and tax revenues as long as we can.”

Supporters say this technology, called carbon capture and sequestration, can offset 90 percent of the plant’s carbon dioxide emissions. As proof of the seriousness of this effort, city leaders have announced an agreement for the San Juan plant to be purchased by Enchant Energy, a subsidiary of the venture capital firm Acme Equities.

“I’m just going to ride it out ’til the end, until the last day.” Kenny Benally, a heavy equipment operator. (Photo by Danielle Nguyen/…& The West)

Enchant plans to operate the coal plant while installing the carbon capture technology. Once collected, the company says, the carbon dioxide can then be used for enhanced oil recovery, a process where compressed carbon is piped into older wells to dislodge oil. Industrial plants in the United States capture 65 million tons of carbon each year, 60 million of which is used for enhanced oil recovery. Companies that store carbon by injecting it into the earth can also receive up to $50 per ton in tax credits.

Jason Selch, co-founder of Acme Equities, said, “The plant emits about 6.6 million tons, and we are going to reduce emissions by 6 million tons by putting in CCS. All the cars in New Mexico emit 3 million tons total. It is taking something that is a bad thing and changing it into a good thing.”

Nathan Welch, a postdoctoral researcher at Los Alamos National Labs, said that CCS is actively being researched by numerous groups at Los Alamos National Lab. “My group alone has many projects running from exploring better engineering of CO2 injection wellbores, the pipes used to deliver CO2 to the subsurface, along with studies on rock behavior, all the way to advancing acoustic monitoring of wells to better detect if a system is leaking,” said Welch.

“This will be the largest scale that it’s ever been attempted on, but there seems to be great support at the federal level to infuse money into this project and see it be successful,” said Mike Stark, county manager. The carbon capture technology will find a use for the excess carbon dioxide, and will help to keep the jobs in the county.

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With the trend towards decarbonization, Justin Ong, Program Director at the market-oriented clean energy nonprofit ClearPath, believes that CCS carbon capture technology can “extend the useful life of plants” and “continue the production of coal in an environmentally friendly way.” According to Ong, “17 million metric tons of CO2 have been injected at multiple sites total.”

Critics of the partnership between Enchant Energy and the city of Farmington are skeptical of carbon capture, which has yet to achieve widespread commercial adoption in the United States. Attempts to implement CCS technology have been unsuccessful; at the Kemper project in Mississippi, delays tripled the original cost estimate of $2.2 billion. Environmentalists describe CCS as only a band-aid to save the coal industry instead of a long-term clean solution. Storing carbon underground may also contaminate groundwater and cause earthquakes.

Enchant Energy has contracted with the engineering firm Sargent and Lundy on a feasibility study of installing carbon capture technology at San Juan station.

The dream of carbon capture in San Juan County is not a new one. A study conducted a decade ago by the same firm concluded that converting the plant’s remaining two units for CCS could cost $2 billion. Meanwhile, the Navajo Nation poured millions of dollars into planning for the Desert Rock project, which never reached fruition. This was to be a power plant with carbon capture technology that would sit directly on tribal land.

Economic and Energy Diversification

“We’ve tried to put a new face on Farmington. We are not just coal and oil and gas,” said Farmington’s Mayor Nate Duckett. (Photos by Vladimir Choloupka for …& The West)

Farmington has recently installed road signs that highlight the natural assets of the region, under the motto, “Jolt Your Journey.”

“We’ve tried to put a new face on Farmington. We are not just coal and oil and gas,” said Farmington’s Mayor Nate Duckett. “We are also hiking trails and off-road trails and rivers and lakes and camping and fishing.” He says he hopes to “build a new mindset that we are a community where active families and outdoor lovers can thrive.”

Much like the state of New Mexico as a whole, Farmington also has the potential to be a national power in renewable energy, with an abundance of wind and more than 300 days of sunshine annually. Massive wind and solar projects are being built in southern New Mexico, like the 522 megawatt Sagamore Wind Project, which will be the largest wind farm in the state’s history. The SunZia and Western Spirit transmission line projects will enable power to be exported to major markets.

“We are in a real need now for economic diversification,” said Mike Eisenfeld, Energy and Climate Program Manager at San Juan Citizens Alliance, an environmental advocacy group. “There are more sustainable ways of creating electricity that need to be fully vetted. We need to help with the transition, but we also need to think about diversifying our economy here.”

It is not clear what the coming changes in Farmington will mean for the mine and power plant workers now on edge. “I’m just going to ride it out till the end, until the last day,” said Kenny Benally, maintaining his optimism. “That’s all you can do, hope for the best.”

This story was first published by the …& The West Blog at the Bill Lane Center for the American West. You can find the original article here.

Utilities Across the U.S. Help Connect Navajo Nation Residents Without Electricity

NAVAJO NATION – Neda Billie has been waiting to turn on lights in her home for 15 years.

“We’ve been living off of those propane lanterns,” Billie said. “Now we don’t have to have flashlights everywhere. All the kids have a flashlight, so when they get up in the middle of the night like to use the restroom, they have a flashlight to go to [the outhouse].”

Billie, her husband and their five kids live in a tiny one-room hogan, a traditional Navajo home. Their three sheep graze on sagebrush that carpets the rolling hills of Dilkon.

They watched two men in a cherry picker hook up the last wire to their home. Billie said they’ve gone through too many generators to count.

“My two boys they have really bad allergies, and they have asthma, so sometimes they need the nebulizer, so we usually go to my mom’s house travel in the middle of the night over there back and forth,” Billie said.

The Billies are not alone. About one in 10 Navajos live without electricity. And as many as 40 percent of the tribe have to haul their water and use outhouses. A poll of rural Americans conducted by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found more than a quarter of Native Americans have experienced problems with electricity, water and the internet.

Northern Arizona University professor Manley Begay, who is Navajo, said the numbers are probably even higher. Begay said electricity provides more than just light. With electricity, a family can pump water, charge their phone, store food, even get and maintain a job.

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“Electricity itself provides a tremendous amount of convenience and having access to the world at large,” Begay said. “You can just imagine if you were to fill out an application for a job, you do it online and you send it in. Or you’re Googling for information, if you don’t have electricity, you’re in trouble.”

Begay said he recently saw something strange when he pulled into a hotel parking lot in Window Rock, the capital of the Navajo Nation. He noticed a bunch of teenagers in their cars.

“You could tell they were high school students,” Begay said. “And so they were doing their homework outside this hotel in the parking lot. They had the light on in their cars and doing their homework. It became quite clear that they didn’t have internet.”

Outside the Billies’ home, the couple waited patiently for the crew to finish the job. Brian Cooper from P&M Electric had an update.

“We’ll get a meter going and you should have electricity,” Cooper said. “Can’t wait to see the real smile here in a minute. Don’t cover it up I want to see it. That’s what joy looks like.”

Cooper traveled from Santa Fe, New Mexico, to install electricity. The utility also donated a refrigerator to the Billies.

Brian Cooper, who traveled from Santa Fe, New Mexico, with P&M Electric, just told the Billies they’re bringing a refrigerator to their house. (Photo by Laurel Morales/KJZZ)

P&M along with several other crews from around the country have volunteered their time to connect people to the power grid.

On the Navajo Nation, the homes are so spread out it costs on average $40,000 dollars to hook up one home to the grid. And half the tribe is unemployed. So you can’t raise rates to energize all those homes. The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority and the nonprofit American Public Power Association have put a call out to utilities across the country to help.

“I had no idea that there were people still in 2019 without power,” Cooper said.

Finally after waiting for so many years, the Billies watched the foreman turn on the meter behind their house and snap the cover shut. Neda then ran inside to flip the switch.

“It’s so exciting to finally have electricity here after so many years without it,” Billie said. “My kids are going to be so happy they keep asking everyday … They go, ‘mom we’re going to have light. We’re going to finally have light!'”

Now the family will wait and pray for running water and internet.

Navajo Nation President Proclaims Renewable Energy Its Top Priority

WINDOW ROCK – Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez signed a proclamation Tuesday that embraces a shift to clean energy development. This comes just days after the tribal council voted to drop its bid for the west’s largest coal-fired power plant.

The proclamation says the tribe will provide off-grid solar to the 15,000 or so Navajo households still without electricity. It will build more utility-scale solar energy projects. Its second solar farm goes online in two months. The tribe also plans to build a solar panel assembly plant to create more jobs.

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Nez said it’s time for our land to heal from coal.

“The opportunity is now,” Nez said. “The opportunity is here, ladies and gentlemen. Let us embrace it. Let the Navajo Nation continue to embrace change by being the leader in renewable energy projects in Indian Country.”

Nez said the tribe is positioning itself to continue to provide energy for the West, as states like New Mexico and California sign legislation to go carbon free by 2045.

This story was first published as a part of the Fronteras Desk, a unique KJZZ project that covers a wide expanse of an under-covered news desert that stretches from northern Arizona deep into northwestern Mexico.

Tribally owned solar power plant beats skeptics, set to expand on Navajo Nation

WASHINGTON – Deenise Becenti remembers watching this summer awhile a woman in the Navajo Nation who had been waiting more than 20 years to get electricity in her home flipped the switch to turn on the lights for the first time.

“She had a whole lot of happy tears,” said Becenti, the spokeswoman for the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority. “It was a very humble day because you knew that she had been waiting for ‘the day’ for a very long time.”

“The day” was made possible by the Kayenta Solar Project, the first large-scale solar farm on the Navajo Nation and the largest tribally owned renewable power plant in the country. The 27.3-megawatt plant, which went on line last summer, now generates enough power for 18,000 homes on Navajo lands.

The path to this moment was not an easy one.

For years, there had been talk about supplying renewable energy to homes on the Navajo Nation, but that’s all it had been – talk. When NTUA General Manager Walter Haase first proposed that the tribe build its own solar-generating plant, there were skeptics.

When Haase began his job at NTUA in 2008, there were about 18,000 homes without electricity. The utility was in the red. It had never owned its own generating facility. And Haase, who is not a member of the tribe, had to gain the trust of the Navajo people and their government.

“They had moved off the nation to cities … because they (cities) had electricity. So now that the … area is connected, they said, ‘OK,’ and have moved back.”

Deenise Becenti, spokeswoman for the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority

“We were in the red, and we just had no direction,” before Haase took over, Becenti said. “The leadership was not there, so he was able to completely turn this enterprise around.”

The idea for Kayenta came together in 2014 and the NTUA was able to break ground two years later. It went online in September, 2017. And, just a few months later, in January of 2018, an agreement was reached to double the size of the project, calling it Kayenta II. Construction for the expansion breaks ground at the end of August.

The project created as many as 284 construction jobs in an area with chronically high unemployment – and facing the possible loss of thousands of jobs with the looming closure of the coal-fired Navajo Generating Station and the nearby Kayenta Mine that keeps it stocked with coal. Haase said that 85 percent of the workforce on the solar project were of Navajo descent.

“We need folks like Walter who are going to be persistent and say that there is no opportunity that is too difficult to deploy this important technology and all the benefits that come with it,” said Tanuj Deora, chief strategy officer with the Smart Electric Power Alliance.

Deora, whose organization recognized Haase as its Visionary of the Year this summer, said completion of the Kayenta project proves that the Navajo Nation is ready to take on other large-scale renewable energy development.

And Haase said the project has generated more than electricity for the Navajo – by owning and operating the plant, the tribe has gained a new source of revenue.

“It’s significant dollars back to the Navajo Nation government, which needs that to provide self-sustaining … services to their people,” Haase said.

The Kayenta Solar project created as many as 284 construction jobs while it was being built, in an area with chronically high unemployment. It opened last year and plans are already underway for a second phase, with groundbreaking set for later this month. (Photo courtesy Navajo Tribal Utility Authority)

Becenti said that the first phase of the solar project has brought families back together on the reservation.

“They had moved off the nation to cities … because they (cities) had electricity,” Becenti said. “So now that the … area is connected, they said, ‘OK,’ and have moved back.”

Becenti nominated Haase for the SEPA award that honors someone who pursues projects “that promote collaborative, innovative and replicable models for change” and that “significantly advance knowledge of or access to distributed energy resources.”

“I already knew I would submit his name for consideration because he’s brought significant progress to the Navajo Nation,” Becenti said of the award, which was presented last month.

There are still challenges. The number of homes off the grid has improved since Haase started, but still stands at roughly 15,000, Becenti said. Although Kayenta could power up to 18,000 homes, getting them connected to the plant is still a challenge because of the vast distances on the remote reservation.

But Becenti looks to the positives.

“We’re meeting the needs of our people … and certainly meeting the definition for which we were created, which was to meet the growing utility demands of the Navajo Nation,” Becenti said.

Grassroots group works to save wild horses on parched Navajo Reservation

NAVAJO RESERVATION – Glenda Seweingyawma plucked quarters from a giant pickle jar and dropped them into the water-station vending machine to fill up a large plastic barrel. It’s a common scene: About 40 percent of Navajos living on the reservation have to haul their drinking water.

But this water wasn’t for humans. It was for wild horses, which have come to depend on it.

“We took one load,” Seweingyawma said. “By the time we get back over there, it was already all gone. And then we get another load of water. And then we go back again and then it’d be gone. I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, we can’t keep up with these horses.'”

Two weeks ago, Seweingyawma and her friend Paul Lincoln woke up to a group of horses outside their trailer.

“When we first saw them, their heads were down and (they were) walking really slow,” Lincoln said. “They were just kind of like zombie horses. And that’s when we saw these ones drop in front of us, and then we said, ‘That’s it. We better start with buckets of water.’ ”

Last month, more than one hundred wild horses were found dead, stuck in thick mud surrounding a dried-up stock pond on the vast Navajo Reservation.

The images, some of the most alarming we’ve seen of the drought, have prompted many people — both on and off the reservation — to take action.

Thanks to donations, including food and water from people all over Arizona, volunteers now are able to leave alfalfa and fill several water tanks. About a dozen people are taking care of about 200 horses.

Lincoln drove his truck over dirt roads to the first stop, a clearing protected by boulders and dry scrub brush in the high desert of northeastern Arizona.

Volunteers work to unload hay from Tracy and Buddy McDonald’s trailer. (Photo by Laurel Morales/KJZZ)

We came around a bend and there they were — a couple dozen horses that appear more spirited on this day, like the powerful symbols of freedom they’ve come to be known as. But Lincoln noticed a new one — a skinny speckled-gray stallion whose ribs you could count.

He whistled at the herd. “Hey, where you guys going? Come get some water.”

Usually they’d run from any sign of humans, but not lately, not when they haven’t seen rain in months. Navajo officials said this year has been the driest in 15 years of drought.

Bidtah Becker, director of Navajo Natural Resources, said the tribe flew over the reservation two years ago to get an accurate count and found at least 30,000 free-ranging horses in an area the size of West Virginia.

“It’s as much a range-management issue or grass-availability issue as it is a horse issue,” Becker said. “Horses compete with the livestock that Navajo people raise on the range.”

One horse eats 32 pounds of forage and drinks 10 gallons of water per day.

Becker has asked the tribal council for $1 million to support a plan that would partner with outside groups to round up horses for adoption, as well as administer contraception. But Becker said that would require yearly inoculations and staff or volunteers who can wrangle horses.

“Community support and getting the community not just on the Navajo Nation but surrounding the Navajo Nation to work together to address the number of feral or free-ranging horses on the nation is critical,” Becker said.

Many Navajo are concerned the horses will be taken to slaughterhouses, a method that was supported by the previous administration.

Becker said that is not part of the current plan because Navajos believe horses to be sacred.

That’s why Paul Lincoln has felt so strongly about saving them.

“They’ve been around longer than we have, so they’re sacred,” Lincoln said. “A lot of our traditions, we’re barely holding on to them.”

And, he said, he feels like the horses have come to him, asking for his help — and he’s able to give it.

Lincoln and Seweingyawma drive a second tank of water to another site next to a broken-down windmill. Tracy and Buddy McDonald show up from Flagstaff with water and hay. Everyone pitched in to unload it. They had read about the “horse heroes,” as they’ve been called, on social media.

“If you’re out here, there’s nothing to eat,” Tracy McDonald said. “And there’s thousands of horses. We need something to control these feral horses so we can continue to have them. It’s part of who we all are. But there’s such an overpopulation there’s no where near enough water or food.”