A New Solar Facility Creates Jobs and Greater Energy Independence for the Navajo Nation

Mark Hay

Last summer, the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority (NTUA), an enterprise of the Navajo Nation, America’s largest sovereign Native American territory, brought the Kayenta Solar Facility into service. A 300-acre development composed of 119,301 photovoltaic cells that move to track the motion of the sun, the Kayenta Facility created 284 jobs during its construction, 85 percent of which went to people of Navajo descent. These jobs were a small but vital boon to a region where nearly half of the population faces unemployment or underemployment. And those who worked on the Kayenta also received training for future jobs in the solar industry, like installing panels in surrounding high-demand communities. The facility is capable of generating 27.3 megawatts of power, enough sustainable, renewable energy for about 13,000 homes.

By some measures, Kayenta may seem like a minor energy development. America hosts many much larger renewable energy facilities, like the 579-megawatt Solar Star projects in southern California. Located outside of the town of Kayenta at the center-north of the Navajo Nation, the new facility isn’t even the first, or largest, utility-scale renewable project built on sovereign Native American land. In 2005, the Kumeyaay Wind Power Project, a 25-turbine facility that generates 50 megawatts (enough for 30,000 homes), opened on Campo Kumeyaay Nation lands near San Diego. And just before the Kayenta facility went live, the Moapa Southern Paiute Solar Project, capable of generating 250 megawatts, opened on Moapa River Indian Reservation lands near Las Vegas. A number of other, similarly sized solar developments are also in the works on other Native American lands, mostly in the Southwest. Most of these projects employ, and provided skills training for, at least some local people.

But those other indigenous communities only leased their land for renewable project uses. And renewable energy generated at these sites doesn’t power the homes of local community residents, either. The Kumeyaay project for example, sells its energy to San Diego, and the Moapa project to Los Angeles. Typically, only the revenue from land leases, not energy sales, goes back to the tribes.

The Kayenta project, meanwhile, was led, is owned, and will soon be fully managed by the NTUA, making it the first tribally owned large-scale renewable energy project. It’s also used to power the NTUA’s own grid, which serves over 40,000 customers in the Navajo Nation, rather than being sold exclusively to external buyers. The NTUA has reportedly historically purchased much of its energy from external power stations, so this makes the Kayenta project not just a new source of reliable energy-based revenue for the Navajo Nation, but a major step toward energy independence.

The project was so successful that the NTUA broke ground on a second 27.3-megawatt facility next to the first this summer. In addition to doubling the Nation’s renewable energy output, “Kayenta II” will pump millions in economic activity into the region over its one-year construction and provide more jobs and training experience. The NTUA also signed a memorandum of understanding with a private energy-sector partner to develop new projects that will create up to 500 megawatts of renewable energy over the next decade, potentially producing massive surpluses for sale to external buyers, yielding substantial, sustainable profits for the Navajo Nation.

“Our objective is to be an energy producer,” says Deenise Becenti, a representative for the NTUA, “and bring outside dollars back to the Navajo.”

Recent studies show that, while sovereign Native territories represent just 5.8 percent of America’s contiguous landscape, they hold 6.5 percent of its renewable energy sources. The United States Bureau of Indian Affairs has identified about 150 Native American reservations, of 326 nationwide, with the capacity to sustain noteworthy renewable or natural gas energy projects. It has also identified 25 projects that could be completed within a matter of years, potentially producing 2,220 megawatts of power. Cultivating that potential could massively boost America’s renewable energy portfolio. And cultivating that potential through indigenous initiatives and under local control (like the NTUA did) could guarantee that energy flows back into Native lands, reducing reliance on outside actors for power, and bolstering struggling economies.

Renewable power projects would also have less of a resounding environmental impact than many other existing or proposed development projects on Native lands. The Kayenta project, for example, functionally replaced a dying regional coal plant and mine, set to shut down next year. These facilities, although not owned by the Navajo Nation, have long employed more than 1,000 people on the Navajo Nation, most of them of Native American descent. In past years coal has provided for a large chunk of the Nation’s annual budget through land lease revenues. Yet the coal operation has also been implicated in decimating local water resources and wildlife. These environmental impacts took a toll on traditional ways of life and rural industries, and came with the usual health concerns that crop up around coal production—from developmental impairments in children to heart, lung, and kidney conditions.

Solar energy and other renewables are “better for the environment, bring revenue for tribes, and increase [energy] reliability,” says Sandra Begay, who leads the federal Sandia National Laboratories’ efforts to help Native communities develop their renewable energy resources. (Begay is herself of Navajo descent and has done renewable energy work on the Navajo Nation in the past.)

Photo courtesy of the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority

Native American communities have been exploring projects to harness their renewable resources since at least the 1980s. But most of this has centered on small-scale projects to provide individuals with home solar or wind systems, or communities and businesses with micro grids. The NTUA itself has been providing solar panels to hundreds of Navajo nation residents electricity since 1999.

Larger scale projects, like the Kayenta Facility, meanwhile, often face unique and prohibitively substantial headwinds. The NTUA only overcame these challenges through a unique mix of solid leadership and follow-through, community buy-in, and a little bit of luck.

The biggest hitch to developing large-scale projects, explains Begay, is land availability. While tribal lands like the Navajo Nation—about 27,000 square miles of rough terrain with only some 200,000 residents—seem vast and largely empty, she says, in reality most of the lands on any given reservation are controlled by individuals, families, land trusts, or a combination of all of them, and allocated for other uses.

“It is pretty difficult to take land use that’s been given traditionally to a family, for maybe grazing cattle or sheep, and then take it back for use of the Navajo Nation as a government,” she says.

The NTUA overcame this challenge in 2016 when they won support from tribal leadership and the Kayenta community. Begay says one family held grazing rights to the land housing both Kayenta facilities. A recent study of land issues on the Navajo Nation by the Diné Policy Institute at the Nation’s Diné College notes that, while grazing rights do not give families full ownership over lands per se, it does give them functional veto power over developments on the lands. Giving up grazing rights is also a sacrifice for many locals given that raising sheep is a massive part of Navajo history, culture, and economic sustenance. Families also reportedly worry that without their grazing permit powers, lands could be slowly turned away from traditional uses and over to industries that do not benefit them or the surrounding community.

“So, a big kudos to the family,” says Begay, “who gave up their grazing rights” for this plant.

“Navajos are matrilineal,” she adds, “so it was the grandmother of that family who had the leadership to say, ‘yes, this is what we should do, and it will all work out in the end to help the Nation.’”

The Campo Kumeyaay Nation and Moapa Band of Paiutes have had similar success convincing key stakeholders to turn land over to renewable energy development. And once that happens, Begay points out, the success of a large-scale venture can convince others in a given community to consider making a similar contribution to the community’s larger interests.

Sara Bronin, an expert on land use and renewable energy law at the University of Connecticut who has studied the challenges facing green energy projects in Native territories, says even with suitable lands secured, the Navajo and other Native communities still face the reality that these projects are time-consuming and expensive. To start with, that means that development projects will likely only work in communities close to markets with a strong demand for renewable energy, like Southern California and the Southwest. But as many Native communities lack sufficient financial resources to pursue projects on their own, and federal grants or loans are limited and often come with cost-sharing requirements, it also means that local project leaders usually have to seek partnerships with outside entities. However, Bronin notes, many communities are skeptical of such partners based on negative past experiences of deals that fell through or turned out to be unfair-to-exploitative.

Becenti acknowledges that the Navajo Nation had a long history with renewable energy developers who promised major projects but never followed through. However, the NTUA was able to secure financing for its own project (the first Kayenta facility cost about $60 million and the second will cost about $50 million) thanks to federal solar investor tax credits, and an agreement with a Tempe, Arizona-based energy firm, Salt River Project (SPR), to cover the cost of loan repayments for the project. For SPR, supporting the project was a good means of increasing its renewable energy portfolio. However, not every Native community can find a good partner and financing mechanism.

Begay says this is probably why most funding for renewable projects on Native lands goes to smaller, community-based initiatives. It’s far easier, both practically and financially, to install a wind turbine for a community center, or solar panels on homes without access to the power grid. These projects, Begay notes, still free up resources formerly used to pay for external energy or increase the livability and economic potential of a community. (Putting a house on its own solar setup where before it had no power, for example, can still extend the amount of time a family can do work in a home, or a child can study, and bring in amenities that make life easier.)

However, there is merit to trying to chase larger projects like that at Kayenta. They produce gobs of jobs. They are also massive sources of income, which build local wealth, and can accelerate efforts to install microgrids and personal solar systems for homes on Native land that will likely never be connected to the actual power grid and thus cannot benefit directly from big renewable power plants. There are 15,000 homes on the Navajo Nation, notes Becenti, that do not have access to the grid. Building new lines that could hook them to the Kayenta facilities’ energy, adds Begay, would cost $25,000 to $35,000 per mile, an impractical expense. Single-home solar-wind systems may be the only answer for these residents, but funding for grants and loans for those systems has been limited. Energy sales from the Kayenta facilities and other new projects to outside communities could provide the resources needed to get more homes access to renewable, sustainable energy, even without hooking them onto the NTUA’s greening grid.

The Kayenta project is not a direct blueprint for other Native American-led projects on indigenous-held lands, given the unique community and circumstances that went into overcoming the challenges it faced. But it is proof, says Becenti, that all the parts can fall into place under the right conditions. And that, when they do, a project can barrel forward to fruition. “Sometimes it’s hard to put your toe in the water,” adds Begay, “but if you can go and see it and say, ‘hey, this was done in this remote area,’ and talk to the players about how it all came about,” then you may be more likely to try to overcome the obstacles yourself.

The Kayenta project may not be the start of an immediate wave of large-scale, Native-owned renewable energy projects, but it is a powerful symbol and guiding light that may give at least a few more projects the faith and abstract support they need to launch.