Navajo Look Toward Renewable Energy
The Navajo Nation has given up trying to purchase one of the West’s largest coal-fired power plants. The facility is an economic engine, but it’s also one of the region’s largest carbon emitters.
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Three generations of Navajo and Hopi have worked for the West’s largest coal-fired power plant. The tribes have relied heavily on its revenue. But now that an Arizona utility has announced it’s shutting down the Navajo Generating Station at the end of the year, the tribe is looking for alternatives, both in jobs and sources of energy. From member station KJZZ, Laurel Morales reports.
LAUREL MORALES, BYLINE: At first, the tribes fought hard to hold on to coal. It finally came down to a vote late last month at a Navajo special council meeting.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: New business – Legislation 0044-19.
MORALES: Delegate Nathaniel Brown and his colleagues deliberated for eight hours on whether or not the tribe should purchase the plant.
NATHANIEL BROWN: Are we ready? Are we ready for the shutdown? I don’t think we are. We stand to lose a lot. Our children, the future generation.
CHARLAINE TSO: (Foreign language spoken). Shame on you. (Foreign language spoken). Money, money, money. It’s replaceable. Enough is enough.
MORALES: Delegate Charlaine Tso said she’s done with coal and its health impacts on her people.
TSO: This is the time that we’re going to take a stand, that we’re going to come together for our people. I’m ready to take on that challenge.
MORALES: The council finally voted against the purchase. That decision marks the end of an era. Before coal, many tribal members worked with the federal government to blast uranium out of the Navajo Nation to make atomic weapons.
BRETT ISAAC: You know, the Navajo economy had been kind of built upon resource extraction.
MORALES: Brett Isaac grew up in that economy.
ISAAC: I still have an uncle that works for the Peabody Energy company. I’ve had, you know, other uncles and cousins and friends – and you had a lot of people who – that’s the only industry and job they ever knew.
MORALES: So a decade ago, when Isaac started installing off-grid solar panels in people’s homes, they all looked at him funny.
ISAAC: But my family have more recently gotten more supportive. They’re motivated by the fact that I’m in it. You know, and I got in so early into it before it was cool, you know?
MORALES: Now Isaac and a group of entrepreneurs have formed Navajo Power, a renewable energy company that’s trying to help the tribe shift away from coal. The tribe has built two utility-sized solar farms already, and it’s working on a third.
ISAAC: It takes the benefit of something that’s abundant and converts it into something usable. So that aligns a lot with not only Navajo philosophy, but a lot of, you know, Indigenous communities about how you responsibly source things.
MORALES: There’s just one problem. The number of jobs at a solar farm can’t compare to coal. The plant and mine supplied 800 of the best-paying jobs on the Navajo Nation, and many more support jobs. Solar, on the other hand, requires hundreds of temporary employees to construct the farm. But after it’s built, the sun does most of the work, a tough sell to a tribe where half of the people are unemployed.
But Isaac envisions solar farms sprouting up faster than corn on the vast reservation and says they could build a manufacturing facility to assemble the panels.
JONATHAN NEZ: It starts with embracing change.
MORALES: That’s Navajo President Jonathan Nez, who’s on board with the idea. He just signed a proclamation to make renewable energy the tribe’s top priority. But he’s also realistic. He knows the tribe has to invest in other economic engines, like tourism.
NEZ: And if we could keep some of our visitors here on the Navajo Nation a little longer, that’s going to bring dollars and jobs.
MORALES: He says, ultimately, they have to think about cleaner jobs and a cleaner environment for their children and their grandchildren. For NPR News, I’m Laurel Morales in Flagstaff.