The city of Flagstaff and the Hopi Tribe have announced they will collaborate on a new renewable energy project that would provide sustainable revenues to the tribe and help fulfill the city’s green energy goals.
The project, which would likely be a solar plant, would be built on Hopi land and the power would be purchased by the city to help it reach 100 percent renewable power for municipal government operations.
“From (the Hopi Tribe’s) economic development perspective and self-reliance perspective it’s a really neat story and it fits well with the city’s goals of diversifying our portfolio,” said Nicole Woodman, the city’s sustainability manager.
The partners are eyeing two potential sites on Hopi land north of Interstate 40 and east of Flagstaff with a total area of about 130 acres, said Steve Puhr, manager of development and strategy at the Hopi Tribe Economic Development Corporation, which is working on the project on behalf of the tribe.
At 19 megawatts, the project will get the city of Flagstaff “very close” to its goal of 100 percent renewable energy use for city government operations, Woodman said. In fiscal year 2017, just 5 percent of the city’s energy usage was generated by renewable sources, according to city data.
The renewable energy work also is a chance for the city and the tribe to demonstrate collaboration despite a history of sometimes bumpy relations, most notably the long-running legal battles over snowmaking on the San Francisco Peaks, Puhr said.
“We’re not oblivious to the fact that if this happens it is at least an olive branch to say, ‘Hey, at least we can work together,’” he said.
Next year’s closure of the coal-fired Navajo Generating Station has added new urgency to Hopi efforts to find other sources of revenue. More than 80 percent of the tribe’s budget is funded by coal royalties from the Kayenta Mine, which supplies the generating station, and a 2016 report estimated that the power plant’s closure would mean the loss of 400 out of 475 tribal government jobs.
Looking forward, the tribe sees renewable energy as at least part of the financial solution, said Ken Lomayestewa, director of the Hopi Renewable Energy Office. While there are no large-scale solar projects on Hopi land right now, the tribe is looking to position itself as a competitive option to developers because tribal trust lands are often exempt from state and local taxes, Puhr said. The economic development corporation is also working on getting certified to apply for a federal tax credit that would knock even more off developers’ costs, he said.
Revenue-wise, however, leasing land for renewable energy projects brings in a pittance compared to the approximately $14 million in coal-related revenue the tribe now receives annually. Puhr said his team’s surveys show leasing land to a large-scale solar plant would bring in just $3 million to $5 million over the course of a 25- to 30-year lease.
But that isn’t stopping the tribe from pivoting toward renewables. The Hopi have done several studies of wind and solar resources on the reservation, available transmission capacity for new projects, land requirements for those installations and the technology available, Lomayestewa said.
After several years during which his office focused mostly on small-scale residential solar projects on the reservation, Lomayestewa said recent preparations for larger-scale development have been moving on “a really fast track.”
The tribe also turned in a solar energy proposal to the Central Arizona Water Conservation District, which runs the Central Arizona Project canal. The district has long purchased power from the Navajo Generating Station and its new effort to diversify its portfolio is an encouraging sign for Hopi, Lomayestewa said.
So is the trend of cities in the Southwest looking to shift to renewable power, he said.
“We're looking at those markets and seeing how we can be a part of that development,” he said.
As for the city of Flagstaff, it will begin looking for renewable energy developers for its project this spring, Woodman said. It also needs to work with APS to make sure the utility will allow another source of solar generation to connect into its system, she said. In that sense, APS has a lot of influence over how or whether the project moves forward, she said.
APS spokeswoman Jenna Rowell said that while the project is in the very early stages, the utility is very supportive of that model of cooperation between cities, utilities and other parties.
State regulators would need to give their approval as well.
Considering the upcoming negotiations and the permissions that will be needed, Woodman estimated that people driving along I-40 could start seeing work on the renewable energy infrastructure starting in two or two and a half years.
“I’m hopeful this can be a showcase project for northern Arizona,” she said.