As coal shuts down, Navajo nation embraces renewable energy
The 2.25 gigawatt coal-fired Navajo Generating Station in Arizona has provided electricity to customers in Arizona, Nevada, and southern California since 1974. In addition, it has powered the pumps that bring water from the Colorado River to the Central Arizona Project, which has been largely responsible for that state becoming a booming agricultural center. It is also an object lesson in how America relates to indigenous people. Although the Navajo Generating Station (NGS) sits on land leased from the Navajo Nation, most of the economic benefits from operating the plant flowed to white Americans.
To this day, the majority of homes on the Navajo reservation lack access to reliable electricity. The coal needed to operate the plants was sourced from land owned by private coal companies rather than land owned by the Navajo people that is closer to the NGS.
While it is true that NGS provided many employment opportunities to native people, in the final analysis, the burden of pollution from the plant has been borne by the inhabitants of the Navajo reservation while most of its economic benefits have been exported to distant communities.
The lease for the land occupied by the NGS expires at the end of this year. Many proposals have been made to keep the plant in operation, some of them from Navajo Nation members who worry what will happen to their tribe when the jobs at the NGS they have depended on for generations disappear. One suggestion was that the Navajo Nation take over and operate the NGS, which could potentially continue in operation until 2042.
Those concerns were aired during a special tribal council last month that lasted 8 hours. “Are we ready?” Delegate Nathaniel Brown said, according to an NPR report. “Are we ready for the shutdown? I don’t think we are. We stand to lose a lot, our children, the future generation.”
Delegate Charlaine Tso said she’s done with coal and its health impacts on her people. The plant is one of the country’s biggest carbon emitters. “Shame on you,” she said. “Money, money, money. It’s replaceable. Enough is enough. This is the time that we’re going to take a stand that we’re going to come together for our people. I am ready to take on that challenge.”
When the vote was taken, the Navajo Nation voted not to pursue the plan to operate the NGS itself but rather to create a new local economy based on renewable energy. The plan is to construct large and small solar installations on land owned by the tribe. The smaller systems will provide power for the first time to many Navajo homes that have never had access to the grid. Larger utility-scale installations will feed electricity into the grid using many of the same 500 kilovolt transmission lines used by the NGS today.
Connecting renewable energy to the larger grid often costs more than building solar and wind farms. Reusing the existing transmission infrastructure gives the Navajo Nation a huge advantage compared to other renewable energy providers.
The new tribal policy was announced April 2 by Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and Vice President Myron Lizer. In a proclamation known as Navajo Sunrise, the Nation commits itself to promoting renewable energy. “We recognize that the
Navajo Nation has been providing electricity for the Western United States for many years while many of our own people lack basic access to power and running water,” the states. Indeed, it can be argued that the Navajo have been treated like a people conquered by a colonial power for almost 200 years.
According to the Navajo-Hopi Observer, Myron Lizer said at the time the proclamation was announced, “The world around us is moving ahead with clean energy and the Navajo Nation cannot afford to be left behind, especially when we have many sources of clean energy that can be harnessed to benefit our people.”
The Navajo Sunrise proclamation goes on to say, “Through the Diné teaching of ‘T’áá hwó’ ajít’éego’ and for the many who have called upon our Nation’s leaders to transition away from our over-dependence on fossil fuels, the Navajo Nation will strive for a balanced energy portfolio and will pursue and prioritize clean renewable energy development for the long-term benefit of the Navajo People and our communities.”
“Ahóá!” Navajo Nation.
(Originally appeared at our sister-site, Cleantechnica.)