In May of last year, the 120,000 photovoltaic solar panels at the Kayenta Solar Plant went operational, becoming the first utility-scale solar plant on the Navajo Nation.
Now, just over a year later, the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority that owns the Kayenta plant is pushing ahead with two more solar projects on the reservation.
First up is a new array located adjacent to the Kayenta solar plant that will double solar generating capacity at that site to 55 megawatts. Construction will begin in August.
The other project is being proposed near Gray Mountain and Cameron, less than an hour north of Flagstaff.
In a community meeting at the Cameron Chapter last month, NTUA officials outlined a plan for a 100- to 150-megawatt solar plant capable of powering at least 20,000 homes. Operations could begin sometime in 2020.
Beyond power generation, the project aims to pave the way for the development of new water, communications and electricity infrastructure that would extend out to local homes in the area, NTUA’s Derek Dyson told about 25 residents at the meeting. The utility, which is a tribal enterprise, is also in talks with a technology company that would co-locate at the solar site to take advantage of the energy infrastructure and employ local workers, said Walter Haase, general manager for NTUA.
The project isn’t meant to generate more renewable energy for Navajo Nation customers though, Haase said. Renewables, mainly hydropower, already supply 35 to 55 percent of NTUA’s energy demand, he said. Instead, Haase sees the panels through the lens of economic development.
He looks at renewable energy as a homegrown product of sorts that can then be sold to bring revenue back to the reservation. He said NTUA plans to use money it generates from solar projects to keep its rates low or to fund projects that expand electricity to the estimated 15,000 homes on Navajo that still don’t have power.
“The actual thing we're trying to do is we're trying to diversify the Navajo Nation's economy and we're trying to bring in dollars from outside of Navajo to benefit the Navajo people and the Navajo government,” he said.
While the project is still in the beginning planning stages, Haase said NTUA has already gained key permissions it needs to move forward. The grazing leaseholder in the area and the chapter’s grazing official gave their approval and then earlier this month, the chapter passed a resolution that allows NTUA to conduct a feasibility assessment and then develop renewables on up to 5,000 acres within the Cameron Chapter.
Even so, tribal members said they want to make sure the project brings tangible benefits to locals.
Stanley "Stan" Robbins said that overall he supports the project, but he’d like to see NTUA build some goodwill with the chapter at the outset by pitching in for solar panels on the chapter house or a solar-powered pump for livestock.
Milton Tso, president of the Cameron Chapter, said that when chapter officials sit down to negotiate the final terms of the project, he’ll be pushing for an agreement where the chapter gets a specific share of the taxes and lease revenue.
“A lot of it has to do with what's actually going to come back to the chapter, how is Cameron going to benefit?" Tso said. “People just don't trust the central government in Window Rock anymore.”
He was hopeful about the project’s potential to extend electricity to homes without it and create jobs and job training opportunities for local residents.
NTUA isn’t guaranteeing that local homes will see new water, power and communications infrastructure if the solar plant gets built, though. What the development will do is establish crucial energy infrastructure that will make such projects much more likely to happen, he said.
“So now all of a sudden when I want to build power or water, it’s just the cost of the line that I need to absorb. I don't need to get backbone (infrastructure) funding,” he said.
Renewable energy redo
About a decade ago, tribal members in Gray Mountain saw another renewable energy proposal fall through after years of planning and negotiations. Two companies were jostling to build a massive wind farm in the area but the project got caught up in clashes between the chapter and the tribal government over which developer to use and, in the end, it never got off the ground.
Tso said he thinks this project is different because NTUA is a local entity and noted that people respected that it has followed the correct steps for gaining various permissions at the chapter level.
Haase said NTUA also has the advantage of having completed a solar plant on tribal land.
There are still many steps to go, including a site lease process and an environmental review, but Haase said he has a strong level of confidence that the utility will build this project, or at least some project, on the Cameron site.
He said he expects the array will produce solar power at a cheaper rate than the Kayenta facility thanks to the larger scale and continued advancements in solar technology. The project was among the top finalists for a recent power purchase agreement with a utility, which Haase said gives him confidence that the proposed pricing is competitive.
Financing for the panels shouldn’t be a problem as long as NTUA can find a buyer for the solar power, he said.
As the tribe faces the closure of the Navajo Generating Station due to coal’s increasingly uneconomic prospects, solar is a more sustainable path moving forward, Tso said.
“The way I see it is coal is dying we need to look into more clean energy and we have the weather for it,” Tso said.