Does solar offer hope for off-the-grid Navajo residents?

Bypassed in the ‘30s and '40s, one third of homes in Navajo Nation still have no access to grid electricity. Yet ironically, it's a huge electricity exporter, with one of the biggest coal-fired plants churning out power sold to millions. And now a plan to shut down the plant could sorely cost the reservation. Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro reports that some are seeing a new opportunity.

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Judy Woodruff: In the Navajo Nation, many residents still live off the grid, making it challenging to live their day-to-day lives.

Special correspondent Fred de Sam Lazaro recently traveled to the sprawling reservation, which is spread across parts of New Mexico, Arizona and Utah.

It’s part of our weekly segment on the Leading Edge of science and technology.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: Neighbors and visitors are few and far between in much of the Navajo Nation in Northeastern Arizona.

So, Grace White was especially happy to get a recent visit from Melissa Parrish (ph), who works for the Navajo electric utility; 75-year-old White survives and even speaks, much like her ancestors did, living in a mud hogan, with neither electricity nor running water.

Grace White (through translator): I use kerosene for lighting and wood to heat my home. Fresh food doesn’t last more than a day or two. So, for meat, I dry it in the sun to make jerky.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: For more than 60 years, she and her family have tried to get connected to the electrical grid. They have even built a more modern building on their homestead with light fixtures and electrical outlets just waiting to be hooked up. But it would cost more than $40,000 to do so. That’s money she doesn’t have.

One-third of the homes in Navajo Nation, about 18,000 of them, have no access to grid electricity. Back in the 1930s and ’40s, the federal government provided loans to utilities to connect rural and remote areas to the grid under the Rural Electrification Act.

However, the Navajo Nation, like many reservations, was bypassed. Utilities didn’t typically serve Native lands and opted not to expand into them. The irony is that the Navajo Nation is a huge exporter of electricity. The biggest coal-fired plant west of the Mississippi is located here, churning out power that is sold to millions of customers in Arizona, Nevada and California.

What the Navajo Nation did get from the plant and a coal mine that fed it is employment, more than 1,000 jobs. But now even that could soon be lost. The plant’s Phoenix-based owners plan to shut it down next year.

LoRenzo Bates: It’s challenging and it’s frustrating.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: Navajo Council speaker LoRenzo Bates says the unemployment rate as it is, is 50 percent on the reservation, which stands to lose not only the jobs, but many people who held them.

LoRenzo Bates: It’s either take a transfer or you’re out of a job. The breadwinners of the family are literally forced to go someplace else to work.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: He says the mine and power plant pay some $30 million to $40 million in annual taxes and royalties, which are needed by the tribe.

LoRenzo Bates: Youth programs, any social services.

Fred de Sam Lazaro: Tribal leaders are trying to find a buyer for the plant to avoid the shut down. It won’t be easy. Many energy experts, including the plant’s current owners, say cleaner burning natural gas is cheaper than coal. Others see a new opportunity. 

With its wide-open, windblown spaces and abundant sunshine, many here in Navajo country see the solution to its energy needs in renewables. And the first major installment in the direction is called the Kayenta Solar Project, a massive array of collectors that’s big enough to power at least 13,000 homes.

Plans are already under way to double the size of this array, and within five years, it is expected to generate nearly the same amount of power as the Navajo generating station.

Twenty-three-year-old Tasi Malala says solar is the only way forward. He helped build the this solar field, which also launched his career.

Tasi Malala: I learned everything from the bottom up, from the piles in the ground to installing the hardware, managing my own crew, to actually setting up communications here that go back to the control center.

Transcript by: Terry Sloan

Related to SDG 7: Affordable and clean energy


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