Tribally owned solar power plant beats skeptics, odds on Navajo Nation

82
Tribally owned solar power plant beats skeptics, odds on Navajo Nation

The Kayenta Solar Facility, which became operational in May, produces enough electricity to power 13,000 Navajo homes. It is the first utility-scale solar project to launch on the Navajo Nation. WASHINGTON – Deenise Becenti remembers watching this summer as a woman in the Navajo Nation who had been waiting more than 20 years to get electricity in her home flipped the switch to turn on the lights for the first time. “She had a whole lot of happy tears,” said Becenti, the spokeswoman for the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority. “It was a very humble day because you knew that she had been waiting for ‘the day’ for a very long time.” “The day” was made possible by the Kayenta Solar Project, the first large-scale solar farm on the Navajo Nation and the largest tribally owned renewable power plant in the country. The 27.3-megawatt plant, which went on line last summer, now generates enough power for 18,000 homes on Navajo lands. For years, there had been talk about supplying renewable energy to homes on the Navajo Nation, but that’s all it had been – talk. When NTUA General Manager Walter Haase first proposed that the tribe build its own solar-generating plant, there were skeptics. When Haase began his job at NTUA in 2008, there were about 18,000 homes without electricity. The utility was in the red. It had never owned its own generating facility. And Haase, who is not a member of the tribe, had to gain the trust of the Navajo people and their government. “We were in the red, and we just had no direction,” Becenti said. “The leadership was not there, so he was able to completely turn this enterprise around.” The idea for the Kayenta project came together in 2014 and the NTUA was able to break ground two years later. The project created as many as 284 construction jobs in an area with chronically high unemployment – and facing the possible loss of thousands of jobs with the looming closure of the coal-fired Navajo Generating Station and the nearby Kayenta Mine that keeps it stocked with coal. Haase said that 85 percent of the workforce on the solar project were of Navajo descent. Deora, whose organization recognized Haase as its Visionary of the Year this summer, said completion of the Kayenta project proves that the Navajo Nation is ready to take on other large-scale renewable energy development. Becenti nominated Haase for the SEPA award that honors someone who pursues projects “that promote collaborative, innovative and replicable models for change” and that “significantly advance knowledge of or access to distributed energy resources.”