The Hopi and Navajo tribes have won something considerable out of a former coal-fired power plant in Laughlin, Nev., that used to buy their coal: Pollution credits worth perhaps $10 million.
In a reversal of fortune, a California utility could ultimately pay tribes to help create the infrastructure for renewable energy to be sold into California, rather than purchasing less-expensive coal.
California's utility regulators redirected funds from Southern California Edison to local tribes in a Wednesday decision after years of requests by local conservation and tribal groups.
The money comes from tradable credits the utility has been getting for the acid rain it isn't producing at the shuttered coal-fired power plant, Mohave Generating Station.
In other words, it has been accruing allowances to emit sulfur dioxide, a regulated pollutant that other utilities and industries need permission to emit and likely will want to purchase.
The funds will be used to establish a revolving loan fund.
That's a fund estimated at $3.5 million to perhaps $10 million that will be loaned out for renewable energy projects and related infrastructure that benefits the tribes.
The loans are slated to be paid back when energy comes online, and then the money can be loaned out again repeatedly, lasting until perhaps 2026.
This is a major victory for Wahleah Johns, of the Black Mesa Water Coalition, who has been seeking such a decision for seven or eight years, she said.
"I hope it would help to build solar plants on our reservation because we are blessed with good solar," she said. "... If these renewable energy projects are majority-owned by the tribal nations, that can generate revenues for our local economies."
Mohave Generating Station was a coal-fired power plant fed with coal from Navajo and Hopi lands from 1971 to 2005, when owners closed it rather than retrofit it to comply with Clean Air Act requirements.
Tribes formerly used groundwater to feed a slurry line sending coal to Laughlin.
It's a win for tribes that have depleted their groundwater and experienced reduced air quality due to coal-fired power that they have helped supply, said one advocate for the new arrangement.
"Today's decision affirms the need to offer some opportunity to those who have sacrificed so much for southern Californians to enjoy decades of cheap power," said Roger Clark of the Flagstaff-based Grand Canyon Trust. "We are humbled to join Navajo and Hopi leaders in celebrating what at long last is an inkling of environmental justice."
A similar sort of arrangement came in 2005, when the Grand Canyon Trust, Salt River Project and Tucson Electric Power established a renewable energy fund as part of a settlement regarding emissions from the coal-fired Springerville Generating Station.
The $2 million spent to date has added hundreds of small solar-energy systems at Navajo and Hopi homes, public buildings and schools, and supported a water- and energy-efficient resource management building at Grand Canyon National Park.
California is likely to have increasing demand for renewable energy if existing legislation remains intact.
That state's legislature passed a bill in 2011 requiring utilities to get one-third of their energy from renewable sources by 2020.
Arizona's Corporation Commission, by comparison, requires utilities to get 15 percent of their energy from renewable sources by 2025 -- a figure the new chairman of the commission proposed in January to leave unchanged.
Cyndy Cole can be reached at email@example.com or at 913-8607.