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What it may take to harness solar energy on Native lands

The Navajo Nation has the most capacity, but its troubled energy history and culture of livestock grazing make solar development fraught.

Solar panel and setting sun
Navajo history is more important than many in the energy world realize both the history of grazing rights and the history of the coalfired power plants that for six decades used Navajo coal to enrich the nation and pollute it.Image credit Shu

To understand the potential for expanding renewable energy on Native territory in the West, three words are key: transmission, land, and history.

Transmission is needed to get power to individual homes, community centers, and to the lucrative markets of Los Angeles, Phoenix and El Paso. Land is needed to get the power in the first place. Without a place to put panels creating photovoltaic energy, there’s no energy.

To meet the international commitments made at President Biden’s recent climate summit, the United States must develop as many renewable energy sources as possible. The indigenous lands of the West have some of the best conditions for harvesting solar and wind energy. But making that happen can be complicated.

On the 27,000 square miles of the Navajo Nation, efforts to harness the estimated 1.83 billion megawatts of solar energy depend on people like Ella Todacheene. A grandmother who died in 2015 at the age of 87, Todacheene was a member of the Kayenta Chapter of the Navajo Nation; she always cooked and sewed by the light of a headlamp. In 2013, she ceded her family’s right to graze livestock on land around their homes, convinced by representatives of the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, the major tribal utility, that her land could be better used for power than for sheep. The plan: produce 27 megawatts of electricity for use in hundreds of Navajo homes that were off the grid.

Navajo history is more important than many in the energy world realize -- both the history of grazing rights and the history of the coal-fired power plants that for six decades used Navajo coal to enrich the nation and pollute it. Planners blind to the background may find their projects going sideways.

“The challenge for non-Indians is they don’t see grazing rights as a traditional cultural right,” Ezra Rosser, a professor at American University’s Washington College of Law, said in an interview.

Solar potential
Sources: National Renewable Energy Laboratory; Census Bureau (Credit: Geoff McGhee, Bill Lane Center for the American West)

“Livestock is a generational program”

What role do grazing permits play in Navajo life? “Livestock, in particular sheep and goats, are a fundamental part of the lifestyle and identity” of tribal members, Rosser wrote in a 2019 Connecticut Law Review article. “Navajo people are so into grazing, that is priority,” one tribal member told a researcher from the Diné Policy Institute. “… Money means nothing to people with grazing permits. They value their livestock more than anything. Livestock is a generational program.”

Living memory of the federal destruction of Navajo herds is disappearing, but when the subject of ceding grazing rights arises, there is a distant echo of the New Deal livestock-reduction policy, which led to the slaughter of half of the Navajos’ million sheep between 1933 and 1946. Still, Ella Todacheene and other chapter members opted to cede rights on 300 acres. (A chapter is the community level of tribal government.)

The Kayenta 1 solar plant opened in 2017; Kayenta 2 opened two years later. About 200,000 panels produce 52 megawatts of electricity, enough to power 36,000 homes. Recalling the discussions, Glenn Steiger, the executive consultant in the office of NTUA’s general manager said, “Every negotiation [with chapter members] is unique. But there’s a core group of benefits.”

Holders of grazing rights who had had no access to grid electricity would be connected. “But beyond that we made it clear that the community of Kayenta itself would benefit – there would be jobs and tax revenue,” Steiger said.

Smaller, nimbler tribes take an early lead in solar development

Working with a large community, like the 110 chapters where approximately 173,000 Navajo live, can be complicated. “If you have a smaller tribe… it’s much more easily done to put in a project,” said Sandra Begay, a Navajo engineer at Sandia National Laboratory who has worked for decades to expand renewable electricity in Indian country.

Case in point: a leader in installing utility-scale solar is the 238-member Moapa Band of Paiutes, with tribal land northeast of Las Vegas. A 250-megawatt plant, five times more powerful than the two Kayenta plants, opened in 2017 on 2,000 acres on the reservation. The Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, one of the Southwest’s biggest energy consumers, is buying the electricity for 25 years.

LADWP says it spends about $54 million annually for 618,000 megawatt hours of power from the Moapa Paiute plant. Previously it used more than six times as much – 3.8 million megawatt hours annually – from the now-demolished coal-fired Navajo Generating Station. With aggressive goals for increasing renewable energy, LADWP seeks renewable power to make up the other 80-plus percent of the power it bought from the coal plant.

Two other major solar plants are planned on Moapa Paiute land, one a 200-megawatt plant set to open in December, the other a 300-megawatt project set to open in 2023. Adjoining the tribal land is a newly constructed 500-kilovolt transmission line to take the power to market; its federally subsidized cost was about $500 million.

The Navajo Nation is 240 times larger than the Moapa Paiutes’ 75,000 acres in Nevada. According to a Sandia Laboratory technical report, it has the most photovoltaic capacity available in Indian Country, more than 1.8 gigawatt-hours – enough to power half a million homes or more. It also owns much of the capacity of a 500-kilovolt transmission line that was originally built to carry Navajo Generating Station power. NGS closed 18 months ago and was razed. Even after the plant’s removal, LADWP retains some transmission capacity; it “intends on fully using its transmission entitlements from the Navajo 500kV switching station … to deliver renewable energy.”

Navajo solar map
Thanks to its historic role in coal mining and coal-powered energy, the Navajo Nation is well-connected to the power grid. Yet few major solar projects have come online, relative to smaller and nimbler tribal governments like the Moapa Paiute near Las Vegas. (Image credit: Geoff McGhee, Bill Lane Center for the American West)
Sources: Energy Information Administration; Census Bureau; ESRI (satellite imagery)

Solar power follows on troubled legacy of Navajo energy production

Solar installations would be an obvious source. LADWP said it “is continuing our discussions with Navajo Nation to explore the feasibility of working together and to identify potential opportunities to reach our mutual renewable goals.”

“The cards are laid out technically,” Begay said. “You’ve got the land. You’ve got transmission. Clean-energy people want to use it, and the land is in control of a sovereign nation. All the parts fit together, but you have to get agreement from the land’s [residents] that grazing might not be the best use of the land.” The Navajo energy future is also burdened by the past. Six decades of dealing with energy projects, first with mines that produced uranium and coal and then with a ring of coal-fired power plants, have left Navajo citizens ambivalent about new projects.

Coal-fired plants have supported – and polluted – the Navajo Nation since the early 1960s. The Navajo Generating Station was a 2.25-gigawatt behemoth on the northeast corner of the reservation, supplied by a coal mine via a dedicated 80-mile railway from Kayenta. Some 800 people, most Navajo or Hopi, worked at these facilities.

Other huge, likely doomed, coal-fired plants are also major employers. Two years ago, the two biggest plants -- the then-operating Navajo Generating Station in Arizona and the Four Corners Power Plant in New Mexico -- created “more than $50 million in direct revenues annually to the Navajo Nation” or about 25 percent of the tribal government’s budget, according to a 2020 report from Sandia National Laboratory.

Coal’s economic benefit had a cost. In 2017, the University of New Mexico School of Law reported that air pollution from coal mines meant Navajo living 20 miles from the Four Corners plant “are five times more likely to be treated at medical facilities for respiratory complaints” than residents of more distant communities.

“It would be nice if whoever builds a plant could run electricity to everyone.”

The loss of the coal economy and the newly available transmission capacity are boons for solar advocates. Two more Navajo solar plants are on deck. First, construction is beginning at NTUA’s 70-megawatt Red Mesa Tapaha plant in southeast Utah.

In an interview published in the Salt Lake Tribune last month, Navajo Nation president Jonathan Nez said, “Our communities were once heavily dependent on fossil fuel energy, but now we are seeing change happen.” He added, ““[The Red Mesa solar farm] is another milestone for the Navajo Nation as we continue to transition to clean, emissions-free renewable energy for our communities and in the open market.”

Newly announced plans map out a 200-megawatt NTUA plant in Cameron, near Grand Canyon National Park. This plant’s output will go over the Navajo Generating Station’s high-voltage line to the Salt River Project, a big Arizona public-power utility. The output of the Red Mesa plant will travel on a smaller transmission line to a utility serving Utah municipalities. The tribe benefits from the land lease and tax payments linked to the sale of power; NTUA, a nonprofit, uses its income to keep rates low and extend service to previously unserved homes, Steiger said.

Herman Farley, president of the Red Mesa Chapter, said his chapter approved the plant, with 600 acres withdrawn from grazing permittees. “Nowadays there’s not much in the way of livestock ownership,” he said. He added that economic development, college scholarships, and connections for 202 unserved families would likely result. Charlie Smith, a retired policeman who is president of the Cameron Chapter, said, “It would be nice if whoever builds a plant could run electricity to everyone. That would be awesome.”

The prospects for building another utility-scale plant close to the site of the now-demolished Navajo Generating Station are unclear; members of the LeChee Chapter, whose land would likely be needed, are not yet ready to give up grazing rights. “The economic benefit will definitely be there, during the construction,” said the LeChee chapter president, Jo Ann Yazzie-Pioche. “After that, it doesn’t take a whole lot of people to run the plant.”

In 2019, she said, the chapter voted to reject NTUA projects, feeling the company was ignoring them and dealing primarily with the central government at Window Rock. “There is a need in every chapter to work with the local people, especially the permit holders,” she feels. The biggest factor in grazing-right decisions, she said, “will be the connection to the land. Once it’s taken, it’s taken.” But the chapter leadership also considers possible benefits. “We would like to work with solar companies that can help the chapter in some ways – scholarships, jobs.”

Does the 1930s government slaughter of Navajo herds still matter?

The New Deal destruction of Navajo livestock still reverberates, faintly. “The whole economy of a people and a way of life was at stake,” the historian Richard White wrote in his 1983 book, ‘The Roots of Dependency.’ The Bureau of Indian Affairs ordered the livestock reduction during the Dust Bowl, to end overgrazing and to keep dust from silting up Lake Powell and Lake Mead. The practice was brutal. Animals were forcibly taken; deputies shot some or slit their throats in front of Navajo owners who depended on their wool. Grazing permits were established later.

“Livestock reduction caused a lot of sorrow and grief. Considering the importance of sheep in Navajo culture and life, the reduction was seen as a strike against the people and their wealth,” according to ”Land Reform for the Navajo Nation” a 2018 report of the Dine Policy Institute. “In a subsistence economy, livestock was considered a source of wealth.”

How much do old resentments affect the current generation as it wrestles with the loss of coal income and weighs grazing rights against a solar-powered future? “I would say the grazing rights have more impact,” said Andrew Curley, a Navajo tribal member and an assistant professor of geography at the University of Arizona. “It’s more consequential to the potential success of a solar field than these lingering resentments. It’s a generational thing. A lot of young people… are coming more into leadership roles and understand the potential for renewable energy.”

He echoed Sandra Begay: “If you want to build big projects, [it’s easier] if you have a concentration of power in a smaller group.” He added, “I think we have a really robust democratic culture in the Navajo Nation that sometimes prevents things.”

Big solar plants are not Navajos’ only access to NTUA power, which comes from a mixture of renewable and fossil-fuel sources. The utility also runs wires carrying power to remote homes along a pole line. “We might have to build 10 miles of pole line with a single wire to connect one to four houses,” at a cost of $1 million, Steiger said. NTUA connects 500 houses a year; about 14,000 remain unconnected.

Some remote homes get power from a nearby pole topped by a triangular apparatus with a solar panel, a battery to store power and perhaps a small windmill. This powers a refrigerator and a few lights.

Wind potential
Sources: National Renewable Energy Laboratory; Census Bureau (Credit: Geoff McGhee, Bill Lane Center for the American West)

A pumped-storage hydro project could capture solar energy for later use

Photovoltaic arrays are one way to produce electricity directly. Another, indirect, method is pumped storage. A $3.6 billion proposal envisions using solar power to pump water from the southern shore of Lake Powell up to a mountaintop reservoir as part of a 2.2 gigawatt project. Projects like these, which use reservoirs as a “battery,” would complement solar and wind energy production by making power generation available at night and when there’s no wind. Last year the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission gave Daybreak Power a preliminary permit to explore the feasibility of its proposed Navajo Energy Storage Station.

A Utility Dive article explained the Navajo Mountain reservoir would send water down hundreds of yards to a powerhouse with eight turbines. An 18-mile transmission line would connect to the existing NGS line, sending power across the Southwest. But a punishing drought has diminished the Colorado River flow that feeds Lake Powell. Environmentalists mock this proposal; Gary Wockner, who heads the group Save the Colorado, has said, “Lake Powell is doomed – it’s nonsensical to build a $3.6 billion straw that will likely end up sucking air.”

As the Navajo Nation continues to plan photovoltaic plants and considers pumped storage, neighboring reservations are finding their own way to a solar future: another solar plant is coming online on Jicarilla Apache land nearby. The New Mexico utility PNM is building a $60 million, 50-megawatt solar plant on 500 acres of tribal land near the Colorado border. PNM’s transmission lines connect to the reservation.

Energy companies continue to plan solar and wind projects in the Southwest as the energy economy transitions to a renewable future. How will the Navajo Nation benefit? The 20th-century coal projects were a big boon to western energy markets and an economic boon to the tribe. The government at Window Rock was able to prosper thanks to the revenues. “Coal was just big, big money,” said Rosser of American University. “I don’t know if any of these solar projects are envisioning that same scale” of direct revenue to the tribal government.

Unless, perhaps, companies build Navajo economic support into their rates. Rosser argues that even in a world of market competition, the companies using Native land for renewable energy should not expect to sell it cheaply. Rosser said, “We as a country have gotten so used to cheap power,” he said. “Navajos getting fair compensation for their resources has to be both an environmental-justice question and a full recognition of their sovereignty.”

This article was originally published by The Bill Lane Center for the American West.

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Felicity Barringer
The Bill Lane Center for the American West

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