Replacing Coal With Solar In Tribal Lands

As coal-fired power plants shut down, many Native American tribes are facing the brunt.  I wrote earlier this year about the challenges facing the Navajo and Hopi Tribes, in particular, with the closure of a nearby plant.

As in many areas around the country, environmental advocates tout the jobs and economic prospects of solar PV as a replacement for lost coal jobs.  To put that to the test, the Farmington Daily Times reported on the Navajo Nation’s first large-scale solar energy facility on the reservation. The 27.3-megawatt Kayenta Solar Project opened in June.  The electricity is sold to the Salt River Project for distribution, with revenues funding local tribal programs.

The project has had some immediate jobs and economic benefits:

[Navajo utility spokesperson Deenise] Becenti said at the height of construction, there were 250 personnel with 195 Navajo workers.

The $60 million facility was built using a construction loan from the National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corporation.

Revenue from the solar project will help NTUA extend electricity to several communities on the reservation, according to an October 2016 press release from the tribal enterprise.

Last year, NTUA [Navajo Tribal Utility Authority] finalized an agreement with the tribe’s Community Development Block Grant program to increase electrical services to 92 residences.

The tribal enterprise will use revenues from the solar project as matching funds for the grant, the release states.

[NTUA General Manager Walter] Haase said in an email this will be the first time most families will have electricity in their homes.

“Using revenue generated from the solar project gives us the ability to bring electric service to these communities and help dramatically raise the standard of living for our Navajo families,” he said.

Overall, it seems like a success story for a rural community transitioning from coal to renewables. And it’s only the start, as the article indicates there’s potential for expanding the solar farm.

While the bulk of the jobs here are probably temporary construction ones, further study could be useful to examine the full impact of the new facility. For example, the tribal programs funded by the solar revenue presumably create their own jobs and economic impacts, which could further offset the loss of coal jobs and revenue. Either way, this is a story worth keeping an eye on for advocates of transitioning to renewables in rural areas everywhere.