As Coal Plant's Closure Looms, Navajo Nation Looks to the Future
March 20, 2018 at 5:13 am
The Navajo Nation hopes the Kayenta Solar Facility can usher in a new era of energy production for the tribe. | Nicholas Michaud
EDITOR’S NOTE: This is the second in a two-part series. Read the first part here.
By Melanie Whyte
KAYENTA — At the Kayenta Solar Facility, white lines create a grid on the surface of royal blue solar panels, a reminder of the electric grid that receives the facility’s energy. Dust and dirt lap at the bottom of the metal structures, a juxtaposition of nature and the sci-fi future that is now our energy reality.
For the Navajo Nation’s economy to go green, it will need more renewable-energy producers like this one.
Glenn Steiger was hired by the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority to act as a consultant for the utility as it works with renewables for the first time. In a company where 97 percent of its employees are Navajo, Steiger, a non-Navajo, was hired for his more than 40 years of experience in the energy and utility industries.
“The industry in general is moving much quicker towards renewable energy, some states much more quickly than others,” Steiger says. But there are challenges.
“It’s always good to have a balanced portfolio; you should never rely on one complete source,” Steiger says. “When I was in California, we relied quite a bit on Northern California hydro energy — until there was a significant drought and it all went away. You can’t just turn the lights off and say, ‘As soon as it rains again, we’ll turn it back on.’”
The same goes with solar. If communities solely relied only on solar power, they would run out of energy when the sun went down.
Regardless of whether renewable energy can quickly replace jobs, coal is on the decline, and the Navajo Nation will have to find a solution for the sake of its people.
The Kayenta Solar Facility sits on land donated by a Navajo grandmother, Mary Toadcheenee. It was part of her grazing permit, and when she signed it over, it opened the door for Navajo energy independence.
She was thinking beyond herself, the NTUA’s Vircynthia Charley says — “that as a nation and as a family, that this is going to create a connection and that tight-knit [community] that we’ve always been, but somewhere was lost.
“It does impact everybody all over, and that’s one thing that we need to remember: We are one, and not divided.”
Although Toadcheenee passed on two years ago, her children attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony and some were employed at the facility, Charley says.
“I think her vision was to provide something not just for her family, but for the entire Nation so that they could continue to develop and grow in specific areas, not just solar,” Charley says.
Renewables such as solar, wind and geothermal energy are important to Navajos because of their relationship with nature, an added incentive for a green economy.
“I think once we heard about the closures, obviously we were thinking, ‘What do we do with all of these employees? How do they continue to be employed elsewhere?’” Charley says. “However, on the other part of it, especially in the local community: ‘What can we do with the land?’”
More than 50 percent of Navajos leave tribal land to find jobs. For many, though, that’s not their first choice. Some have stayed in their homes for generations.
“To the outside world, I’m sure it makes more sense to move to a community where there is more infrastructure, but people are willing to forgo all that, because to them, their home is where their family has always lived,” Charley says. “It’s not an easy decision, because you’re torn between having to provide for your family or having to leave home.”
Now, it’s common for Navajo families to maintain two homesteads. They have the family homestead, and they work and live outside tribal land and occasionally come home.
“If the industry went away, they might try to get jobs here,” Deal says. “Our people with talent and experience would be able to come back to the land.”
Deal hopes Navajos will return when the coal industry leaves — theoretically for jobs in the renewable-energy industry.
“Once [coal] leaves Navajo Nation, we’ll start to think beyond the industry,” Deal says.
There are no words in Diné that translate directly to “solar energy.”
But the NTUA has taken the lead in demonstrating that a renewable facility can be built and operated here. Being the first comes with challenges, such as educating the community on renewables.
“We created words for ‘solar’ because ‘sun’ is a god, so we can’t use a name for the sun, and we shouldn’t use it,” Charley says. “We learned that the hard way.”
The basic word now used for solar is shuundin, or farm of sunrays — a solar farm.
The solar facility’s ribbon cutting ceremony was three days after the August 2017 total solar eclipse. To the Navajo people, an eclipse is a time when people think about the future and the blessings ahead.
“It’s rejuvenating everything that we’re connected to, whether it’s animals or plants or people,” Charley says. “When it collaborated almost in that same moment, it was definitely something to celebrate, because it was a renewal for us — something that is brand new.”
And Navajo hands helped build the Kayenta Solar Facility. At the height of construction, there were approximately 260 people employed, with 195 being Navajos from the region.
The construction brought a lot of workers home for a short time while they built the facility. According to Charley, it brought in $15 million to Kayenta through hotels, food and gas.
But it’s not yet a source of job creation. First Solar is handling the operation and maintenance remotely from Tempe for the next three years while the NTUA learns how to operate the facility. The tribal utility doesn’t yet have the internal expertise to operate a plant like this.
“This is NTUA’s first large-scale plant — first large-scale of any kind of generation,” Steiger says.
Many Navajos grew up under the impression that things aren’t built on the Navajo Nation. Now, the Kayenta Solar Facility is showing that it can be done, and it lays the groundwork for the Nation to build more generating plants on tribal land.
“This is just the beginning,” Steiger says.