Transmissions lines on the Navajo Nation. They could be used to send clean energy to Los Angeles.
Transmissions lines on the Navajo Nation. They could be used to send clean energy to Los Angeles.
Photo: AP

For more than 40 years, the Navajo Nation helped power the city of Los Angeles through a dirty coal plant on the reservation. The Navajo Generating Station closed late last year, but the link between the city and the Navajo Nation may live on in a way that’s much more healthy.

Leaders are looking to renewables to generate power for Los Angeles and revenue for the Navajo Nation without the health risks posed by dirty air. Last month, the Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously to partner with the tribe to turn the former coal plant—which the city partially owned—into a renewable energy hub, including wind, solar, and hydro. Council Member Mitch O’Farrell, the first Los Angeles council member from a federally recognized tribe, spearheaded the initiative and got his colleagues on board. The deal isn’t yet solidified; the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power still has to conduct a feasibility study over the next few weeks to ensure this partnership wouldn’t be too costly on city ratepayers or the Navajo Nation. But if done right, the project could be transformational.

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“I would love to play a role in helping create a new template for how we can continue purchasing energy while, at the same time, compelling energy producers to transition into clean, sustainable [carbon] neutral energy generation,” O’Farrell told Earther.

The situation could be a win-win for the tribe and the city. The Navajo Nation is missing some $40 million in revenue since the coal plant went bust. Leaders scrambled to find new owners to keep the power plant running to no avail. That’s partly because coal is very much dying due to economics that favors renewables and natural gas. More than 540 coal units shut down between 2010 and 2019 in the U.S., and another two in Virginia announced their retirement last Tuesday.

The Navajo Nation is in need of new sources of income, and leaders are hoping that this partnership can be among the first, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez told Earther. If the Los Angeles partnership can succeed, the tribe hopes it can eventually help supply clean energy to cities in neighboring states such as New Mexico and Nevada, as it did when the coal plant was running. Tribal leadership is already in discussions with Nevada officials to move forward on a separate partnership. These deals have the potential to provide cash to help with development.

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“We want to be able to sell electricity and get that revenue back so we can help our own people get electricity because a lot of our people don’t have electricity,” Nez said.

Despite being a major energy provider when the coal plant was operating, the Navajo Nation suffers from energy poverty: Some 15,000 families on the Nation lack electricity. In the second decade of the 21st century, there are still people living in the world’s wealthiest country without access to reliable electricity. Imagine that.

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The Nation has been expanding its Kayenta Solar facility to help address tribal members’ energy needs. In September, the facility added another 28 megawatts of power—all to energize homes within the reservation. The project’s first phase brought power to 228 homes for the first time. But working in partnership with Los Angeles and other cities could help speed that work up.

“We always hear positive stories of when someone gets electricity,” Nez said. “Families are emotional. They’re so happy that they don’t have to be without electricity. Kids don’t have to do their homework under kerosene lanterns or flashlights. They’re able to flip a switch.”

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Los Angeles should benefit, too. The city is currently going through the process of implementing its own Green New Deal and plans to go 100 percent renewable by 2045. A partnership with the Navajo Nation could help bring the city a little bit closer to meeting that goal. O’Farrell foresees this project generating some 500 megawatts of energy, which could serve 10 percent of the power Los Angeles needs.

And the project has already cleared one of the biggest financial hurdles. While the power plant’s ownership included a number of institutions, including the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Salt River Project, Los Angeles maintained complete ownership of the transmission lines. That gives any renewables project a huge head start in terms of infrastructure and financing.

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“To build those transmission lines somewhere else that is equidistant from northeastern Arizona to Los Angeles would be probably in the hundreds of millions of dollars, so we have a lot to work with just out of the gate,” O’Farrell said.

The best part of it all? This would be clean energy not just in terms of carbon pollution but air and water pollution as well. According to reporting by ProPublica, pollution from the plant caused an extra 12 deaths in 2012 alone and the Environmental Protection Agency documented a doubling of cancer rates on tribal lands after the plant went into operation (the usual caveat correlation doesn’t equal causation applies). With the potential turn to renewables, those living on the Navajo Nation would no longer have to bear the costs of pollution, and they could reap these economic benefits of a new industry.

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Now, tribal leaders are looking at renewable energy as an opportunity to create jobs and income as the world turns toward energy sources that don’t emit carbon and fuel the climate crisis. Individual tribal members have been attempting to drum up more interest in solar for years, but now the Nation at large has a real opportunity to invest in the clean energy sector and reshape its economy around what that industry has to offer.

“We need to diversify our economy,” Nez said. “The demand all around the world is to be better stewards of our land, and that means moving away from coal-fired power plants.”

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Nicole Horseherder, the executive director of indigenous-led environmental group Tó Nizhóní Ání and a member of the Navajo Nation, hopes tribal leaders seize this moment to bring positive change to her community. She doesn’t want to see another polluting industry come onto their lands and take over the former coal plant, which will take until 2022 to clean up. She’s seen the way extractive industries have taken advantage of the tribe, digging up whatever they need, getting rich, and then leaving behind a legacy of damage to key water sources and human health.

“That’s not the type of structure we want to see in the future,” Horseherder told Earther. “All these projects—like the power plant and coal mine—there was a promise that there would be prosperity for the Nation. To this day, no one’s seen that prosperity across the Nation the way that we were told that it was gonna happen.”

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All this is why Horseherder traveled to Los Angeles about a year ago. She knew that the Navajo Nation needed change and that her community would have to keep its allies like Los Angeles close if it were to succeed. Horseherder hopes that, this time around, the Navajo Nation has greater control over the development of wind, solar, and hydropower on tribal lands, though there’s still a lot of work left to be done to even get the partnership with Los Angeles off the ground.

“If [the Navajo Nation] pulls together its resources and experts, it has a better chance of being able to make this project work,” she said.

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However, planning and developing an energy project of this scale from scratch is uncharted territory for the tribe. It won’t be an easy task. But the end of fossil fuels doesn’t have to usher in even more economic hardship for a tribe that has dealt with decades of oppression. A fair partnership with Los Angeles could bring the Nation one step closer to establishing its own sort of Green New Deal, showing what a just 21st-century economy could look like for all.

Senior staff writer, Earther. All things environmental justice, please. I'm addicted to Stardew and love few things more than I love my cat.

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