EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the first in a two-part series. Read the second part Tuesday, March 20, on the Arizona Highways blog.
By Melanie Whyte
KAYENTA — Five miles from the center of this community, on the edge of the Navajo Nation in Northeastern Arizona, a solar facility glistens blue, like an oasis against the backsplash of red rocks and open desert. Wild horses graze on tufts of grass outside the gates. Nearby, solar panels track the sun like sunflowers.
Occasionally, a car drives past, carrying tourists on their way to Monument Valley, where picturesque sandstone buttes punctuate the horizon. A couple pulls over to the side of the road and takes a picture of a sign that reads: “First Solar Energy Production Plant Built and Owned by the Navajo Nation.”
In a place where the coal industry reigns, the solar plant, the Kayenta Solar Facility, is more than just a new source of energy in Navajoland. It’s a testament that the country’s largest Native American tribe can harness the powers of one of its deities to generate money, energy and jobs.
“Father, the sun, will be there, and he’s going to bless us without cost,” says Percy Deal, a retired Navajo County supervisor and board member of Diné CARE, an environmental advocacy organization.
For over 40 years, the Navajo Nation has relied heavily on a coal power plant and its associated mine, its largest employers, to sustain its people and economy. Now, the plant and mine may close because coal can’t compete with low natural gas prices or the declining cost of renewable energy. This leaves Navajos reason for concern, but also an opportunity to take control of their resources, their land and their future.
The new facility, built by the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority (NTUA), aims to set a precedent that new industries can be built and thrive on tribal land. This, in turn, could make the Navajo Nation more attractive to investors and bring in outside dollars to expand infrastructure and replenish revenue.
The NTUA’s Kayenta district manager, Vircynthia Charley, walks along the rows of solar panels, her hair wound in a tight bun reminiscent of her time in the military.
When she left high school, finding a job proved challenging, so she joined the Army. When she returned, the unemployment rate was still high, so she worked in Phoenix for five years before the NTUA position brought her back. She’s been with the utility for 22 years.
“I love being out here. I’m not much for a city,” Charley says. “I hated it and wanted to come home. I’m grounded here.”
Gravel crunches beneath Charley’s feet and the combiner boxes hum, but otherwise, there is silence — no buzz of energy, even standing so close to so much power.
“Whoever thought that we are going to build a utility company for Navajo run by Navajo, extending service to Navajo, had a great vision,” Charley says. “Somebody was very confident in us that we could take care of our own.”
It will not be an easy undertaking. The coal plant, the Navajo Generating Station (NGS), and Peabody Energy’s Kayenta Mine make up 40 percent of the tribe’s revenue, and there’s strong interest from tribal leadership to keep them going — and fear among some Navajos of what could happen if they shut down.
“People are getting nervous,” Charley says. “They ask, ‘What is this going to do to us at the grocery store?’ or ‘How many people are going to be shopping here?’”
The power plant will stay open only if a new owner is found. The same goes for the mine — the coal plant is its only customer.
The generating station’s owners, including majority owner Salt River Project, estimate they’ll lose $20 million if the coal plant runs through 2019, due to the high cost of running a coal plant with current market prices. But the owners are keeping it open to give the Navajo Nation time to transition from coal to a new economy.
“The Navajo Nation could look to plan their own energy future,” says Scott Harelson, a spokesman for SRP.
Meanwhile, the Kayenta solar plant is generating 27 megawatts, enough energy to power 13,000 homes.
Charley looks past the gates, with high-voltage-warning signs in English and Diné, and asks, “What do we do for those that are going to lose those opportunities to remain here because of both of the closures at NGS and the coal mine?”
She then answers her own question: “It’s going to give them the opportunity to start learning in other areas.”
Ultimately, Charley says, the solar plant is about changing the minds of people on and outside tribal land about what the Navajos are able to do for themselves: “something that is genius.”
Navajos have long relied on the coal industry for revenue, jobs and reliable energy. In a place where unemployment hovers around 50 percent, the NGS is one of the largest employers in Navajoland, with more than 300 full-time employees. More than 90 percent are Navajo.
One NGS employee, who asks not to be named, says she worked her way up from the mailroom. She’s not yet ready to retire and isn’t comfortable with the idea of leaving tribal land for a new job. “I have my kids going to school here, I have my ranch here, I have everything here,” she says. “I can’t just leave like that.”
Her husband and 25-year-old son also work for the NGS. For now, they must wait for official news on what will happen next. "Every day we get ready, go to work, and we just do what we’re supposed to do,” she says. “One day we’ll get an email, or our boss will come to tell us the news.”
In February, the four remaining owners, including majority owner SRP, worked out an agreement to extend the plant’s 50-year lease to 2019 to accommodate decommissioning.
“NGS and coal continue to be essential to a diverse, reliable and secure energy portfolio for Arizona,” Beth Sutton, a spokesman for mine operator Peabody Energy, says in a statement. “Peabody believes NGS is an important engine for state and tribal economies and should continue operating well into the future.”
In a press release in early October, Peabody confirmed that several potential investors have expressed interest in pursuing an ownership position in the NGS for operation beyond 2019.
When the owners of the plant made their decision to close the NGS, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, a 24.3 percent owner of the venture, began investigating whether a viable ownership group could step in. But time is running short.
“It would be very complicated to come in and create a new lease with the Nation, meet with the [Environmental Protection Agency] and negotiate with the current ownership,” says Harelson, the SRP spokesman. “The work can be done, but to be frank, we would be surprised if there is another entity that believes that this is economical.”
Some say the plant’s closure is inevitable, while others are hoping a new owner will come along. But the people of Kayenta are left wondering how to prepare for the future.
People came from all over the Navajo Nation to Kayenta to work for the mine or the NGS. If they return to their homes, Kayenta will lose residents. How will the town fill those gaps?
“Assuming there is no new ownership and we start to dismantle the coal plant, we ask them, ‘What do you want to keep?’” Harelson says.
The transmission facilities will remain, the federal government will provide 500 megawatts of capacity to the Navajo Nation at no cost for 30 years, and SRP will pay for operations and maintenance for the next 10 years, Harelson says.
“It starts to give them the ability to develop if they decide to build a solar facility [here],” he says.
It’s a relationship of dependency. For decades, the Navajos have believed they could not survive without coal. But now, the energy industry is changing.
Just shy of the Navajo Nation, a sign reads: “Radioactive pollution kills — it’s time to clean the mines.” It’s a reference to uranium mining, a topic with echoes of the current battle over the coal industry — the economic benefits pitted against environmental and health hazards. In fact, the EPA is in the midst of a five-year-plan to conduct health studies and clean up contamination from uranium mining across the Navajo Nation.
In the shadow of that history, Navajo groups are working to establish a new economy — one that gives the tribe economic and environmental control.
Grass-roots organizations like Diné CARE and its board members, such as Deal, meet with the tribal government to educate representatives of the harmful effects coal mining has on the environment and public health.
Deal, 68, came out of college with an engineering degree. When he returned home after graduation, he attended an elders’ meeting and offered to translate a relocation policy from English to Diné, so the decision-makers could understand what they were getting involved in.
From that moment on, Deal hasn’t used his engineering degree. Instead, he’s spent more than 40 years in politics, helping to educate the community.
“I used to see elk, antelope, deer and turkey, but you don’t see them anymore,” Deal says, adjusting his Colorado State University cap. “Eagles and hawks are sacred animals to us and [the] Hopi. They play a role in the ceremonies. There is also a lot of asthma, lung and heart problems, and other diseases that coal and the plant have brought to us.”
Deal and Diné CARE are pushing for studies in the area to confirm the cause of those health issues. However, studies in other coal-dependent communities show a correlation to similar diseases.
Health concerns might not be the only reason the Navajo Nation faces an uphill battle in keeping the plant and mine open to preserve jobs and revenue.
The only way to stop the decline in U.S. coal consumption is if natural-gas prices increase, according to a report by Columbia University's Center on Global Energy Policy. But if prices stay near current levels or renewable costs continue to fall, coal consumption will continue to decline, the report says.
When the coal plant’s lease was set to expire, politicians on tribal land, in the state Legislature and in Congress started to talk about the loss of revenue and jobs. Deal says they failed to mention the water, health and environmental impacts.
“People may have to leave when NGS closes, but they will come back to work with renewables,” Deal says. “Coal is a dying industry, even with President Trump.”
Questions still linger. Will a green economy grow jobs? And how will the Navajo Nation handle the transition to a new economy without the coal industry?
Read this story’s conclusion on the Arizona Highways blog on Tuesday, March 20.