As coal dwindles, Southwest tribal solar farms pump out power


New, large-scale solar farms are bringing jobs to reservations and electricity for the first time to families living on tribal lands in remote areas of the Southwest.

Along with selling renewable energy on a large scale to cities like Albuquerque and Los Angeles, solar power generated by tribes pays for infrastructure to power up homes that have been waiting decades for electricity.

The Navajo Tribal Utilities Authority successfully brought online two large solar projects that generate 55 megawatts in Kayenta, Ariz., over the past year. The two sites now provide enough electricity to power the entire 17-million-acre reservation.

Building the two solar farms employed more than 400 people, most of them tribal members, said Deenise Becenti, the utility’s spokeswoman.

The power authority raised seed money to bring electricity to remote families by selling renewable energy credits to Phoenix’s Salt River Project.

This fall, as part of the Light Up Navajo program, utility line workers from 12 states travelled to the reservation to install poles and power lines for 225 families. These workers typically deploy to restore power after natural disasters.

“The gratitude was tremendous for these families,” Becenti said. “Now they can keep groceries cool in their own refrigerator instead of using a neighbour’s.

One grandmother was so glad she could make her own toast in a toaster. Children were excited to eat Popsicles in their homes.”

About 15,000 Navajo households still have no electricity, she said.

The Navajo Nation plans a second, larger solar farm at Red Mesa that will generate 70 megawatts, said Glenn Steiger, an executive consultant with the tribal utility. “All of that power will go for export,” Steiger said.

Solar power deals
“Tribal lands in the Southwest are the Saudi Arabia of solar because they’re largely under-developed and undeveloped,” said Karl Cates, a Santa Fe-based energy analyst for the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, a think tank that studies sustainable energy.

“Solar is gaining market share much faster than anyone thought it would have as recently as a year ago, and it’s all market-driven,” Cates said.

New Mexico’s Public Regulation Commission heard a proposal earlier this month to approve the Jicarilla Solar Project, a 500-acre, 50-megawatt solar farm on Jicarilla Apache Nation tribal lands in northern New Mexico’s Rio Arriba County.

Through an agreement with Public Service Co. of New Mexico, the deal will provide electricity to supply Albuquerque with 54 percent of its electric demand.

The Jicarilla Apache project also has a 20-megawatt large battery project alongside the solar farm, which will help the project regulate and store power, Cates said. The project is part of a 15-year partnership with Public Service Co. of New Mexico.

New Mexico has jumped into support for renewable energy. Lawmakers this spring passed the state’s Energy Transition Act, which puts the state on a path to 100 percent renewable energy within a generation. New Mexico’s Democratic U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich have proposed national legislation to promote renewable energy on federal public lands.

“My whole public service career has been filled with questions about why our state isn’t a leader in renewable energy,” Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller said in a statement announcing the Jicarilla Apache deal. “This project puts us on the map with the third-largest solar project on tribal lands in the nation.”

Solar is a blessing because earlier this month, in neighboring Arizona, the Navajo Generating Station — the largest coal plant in the West — closed after 45 years. The demand for coal power was too low to sustain the operation. The Kayenta coal mines closed in August.

Hopi and Navajo tribes will face a loss of $30 million to $50 million in royalty revenues and 750 coal-related jobs, most of them held by tribal members, the tribes said.

“The demand for coal-based energy is no longer at its peak not only in our region but across the country,” Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez said in a statement.

“As Diné people, we have always been resilient in times of change, and that’s what we are doing by pursuing renewable energy options. We are looking to become the leader in renewable energy throughout the Southwest and Indian Country.”

In Nevada, the Moapa Band of Paiutes plans two new solar farms, pumping out a total of 500 megawatts to be used by NV Energy in Nevada. In 2017, the tribe built a 250-megawatt farm that sells power to the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power.

Many tribal nations already have made deals with other extraction utilities, such as oil and gas and coal companies, said Flagstaff, Ariz.-based Karin Wadsack, who manages the tribal program for the U.S. Department of Energy’s

National Renewable Energy Lab.
Investing in solar or wind power diversifies their energy revenues, and aligns with values like “tribal sovereignty and environmental stewardship,” Wadsack said.

An October 2018 report by the energy lab said U.S. tribal nations in the Southwest are particularly well-placed to develop utility-scale energy from solar sources.

“The fact that these tribes have built these solar programs so fast just shows it can be done,” Wadsack said.
“It’s going to take a long time before we can move away from other sources of energy like oil and gas and coal,” Navajo Tribal Utilities’ Steiger said. “But over time, there will definitely be a move to use renewable as our prime energy source.”

Using power from the sun also fits with the tribe’s cultural outlook, Navajo Tribal’s Becenti said.
“The sun is a powerful symbol in the Navajo culture. It’s certainly a blessing that we are able to build a facility that helps promote economic development and new jobs,” she said.

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