How Tribes Are Harnessing Renewable Resources for Energy and Jobs

Navajo Nation Projects

For 45 years, the 2,250 megawatt Navajo Generating Station burned countless tons of coal on Navajo land just outside Page, Arizona, creating power that helped fuel the rapid growth of the south -west while spitting carbon and toxic emissions of its 775 foot high piers.

It created hundreds of jobs for Indigenous workers and generated hundreds of millions of dollars for the Navajo Nation, owner of the Navajo Transitional Energy Co., one of the largest coal companies in the United States.

So when SRP, the Tempe, Arizona-based utility that operated the facility, shut it down in 2019the effects were felt across the 27,000 square mile Navajo Nation.

The closures resulted in job losses for around 1,000 people, the majority of them citizens of the Navajo Nation. It also created an expected revenue drop of up to $50 million, forcing the tribe to dip into savings, according to Nez, the tribe’s president.

Now with more mines and factories in the area should close or reduce its activities, declining incomes and job losses in the coal industry are expected to continue. But the Navajo Nation is ahead of the game, Nez said.

When SRP announced the closure of the Kayenta mine, construction was already underway on the Kayenta Solar Farm near the site where a major coal mine had long powered the Navajo Generating Station.

The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority completed the solar project in 2017, before the local mine closed. The utility completed work on a second Kayenta solar farm in 2019, the year the mine closed.

Together, the Kayenta Solar Farms spans 365 acres and produces 55 megawatts of electricity that provides enough electricity to power 36,000 Navajo Nation homes, Nez said. The construction projects employed hundreds of people, nearly 90 percent of whom were Navajo, and generated some $9 million in wages, according to the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority.

Nez said the work associated with the solar farms has helped offset some of the coal mine’s losses with new jobs and income. He said the tribe is working to take advantage of clean energy opportunities and ensure the nearly 400,000 members of the Navajo Nation reap the benefits.

It also gives the tribe control over its future, he said.

The old Kayenta mine belonged to a multinational. And while the tribe had a “small share” in the Navajo power plant, the solar facility is “entirely owned by the Navajo people,” Nez said.

The tribe is now striving to balance its historic connection to the fossil fuel industry while meeting the growing demand for renewable energy.

“We still have coal here in the Navajo Nation,” Nez said. “We are not closing the door to our natural resources that are here.”

Yet the tribal government recently approved a proclamation embracing the transition to clean energy, and officials expect new solar projects to generate millions of dollars in revenue. Funds can be invested in the local economy and jobs that will last longer than temporary construction work, Nez said.

Glenn Steiger, a non-Indigenous executive consultant and solar project manager with the Utilities Authority, said the utility was trying to expand construction employment by chaining projects over time.

But the projects will not create a significant number of full-time jobs. A planned project in Cameron, Arizona, will create 400 construction jobs, but only four long-term positions, he said. In Kayenta, the project created five full-time jobs after construction was completed.

The data suggests that nationwide solar projects, such as the massive solar farms on Navajo lands, create a fraction of the jobs produced per megawatt by residential installations, where a relatively small number of photovoltaic panels are installed and electricity is conserved on square.

Over time, however, the Navajo Nation plans to develop its internal expertise so that an increasing number of administrative functions can be performed by tribal citizens, Steiger said.

Even so, the authority’s renewable energy arm, known as NTUA Generation Inc., or NGI, will have about 15 full-time employees once the country’s five planned solar power plants are completed.

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