Wind and Solar Power Best for Navajo Nation

Wahleah Johns

Part of the debate about how to approach pollution cleanup at the big Navajo Generating Station coal-fired power plant near the Grand Canyon has always revolved around jobs and revenues for the Navajo Nation. Federal regulators heard more on this in recent public hearings.

Some in the Navajo Nation government very much want to see a coal future and therefore slow or delay any change for the coal plant as long as possible. Others, including Navajo community groups like Black Mesa Water Coalition and many Navajo Nation residents, see the energy landscape today quite differently.

We see that in the past two years the two largest U.S. coal companies, Peabody and Arch, have lost more than 75 percent of their value, while over the same period the price of solar panels has dropped some 60 percent.

We see utilities around the country buying wind power at prices lower than coal or natural gas, like Xcel Energy’s recently approved purchase of nearly 700 megawatts of wind energy, which will save customers in New Mexico and Texas nearly $600 million over 20 years.

We also see coal mines for sale in Wyoming getting no buyers and the owner of a mine on the eastern Navajo Nation eager to sell because of coal’s decreasing competitiveness. And we see proposals for coal export terminals in the U.S. being shelved as projected demand for imported coal in pollution-choked China flattens.

If you look honestly and objectively at the energy landscape today, it’s clear that moving quickly to curb coal pollution and develop renewable resources on the Navajo Nation is the smart economic bet. It’s the way to build lasting Navajo jobs and revenues that can replace the ebbing coal era.

A study this month by Synapse Energy Economics Inc., finds that building and operating 900 megawatts of renewable energy on the Navajo Nation to replace one-third of the coal-fired power at the Navajo Generating Station will provide approximately the same number of jobs as that third of the coal plant and the Kayenta mine that fuels it.

Factoring in both the direct and indirect employment resulting from the renewables development, as well as the jobs created by spending the royalties paid by developers (or by spending the profits if the projects are Navajo-owned), nearly 1,000 jobs in total will be created with 900 megawatts of renewable energy on Navajo Nation.

In terms of feasibility, we’re talking about a region with existing transmission infrastructure and where multiple studies have found astonishing potential for both solar and wind. In terms of additional benefits beyond jobs, we would see the savings of large quantities of Colorado River water now used in coal production that could be redirected to improve Navajo agriculture. We would also see the immeasurable benefit in human health from producing power without harmful air pollution.

However, the longer cleanup requirements for Navajo Generating Station and the transition they motivate are delayed or left uncertain, the more we inhibit clean alternatives that can provide even greater economic benefits.

The more that leaders are hesitant to see the handwriting on the wall for coal and move to seize economic opportunity in clean renewable energy, the more the Navajo Nation risks missing a window to build and provide job-and revenue-generating clean power.

It’s a window that will narrow and eventually close if we wait too long and too many others around the Southwest get there first.

Wahleah Johns is solar project manager at the Black Mesa Water Coalition, a Navajo community organization.