'Renewable ranch' in Eastern Agency takes shape

Solar farm to enter pre-construction phase soon

James Fenton
Solar farm map.

FARMINGTON — The Eastern Navajo Nation Agency is exploring the possibility of building a solar farm as part of efforts to chart a “new path,” according to a tribal official.

The proposed project would deliver 2,100 megawatts of photovoltaic power at the Paragon-Bisti Energy Renewable Ranch, a 22,000-acre parcel south of Farmington.

Wenona Benally, Navajo-Hopi Land Commission Office executive director, said in a statement that the Navajo Nation, better known for its coal mine that supplies the Four Corners Power Plant, is poised to invest in renewable energy.

“There is extraordinary potential for the Navajo Nation to develop renewable energy resources on our lands,” Benally said.

The project’s location was made possible after the land formerly owned by the Bureau of Land Management near the Bisti Wilderness was acquired by and later conveyed to the Navajo Nation in the late 1980s under the Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act of 1974.

The Navajo Hopi Land Commission Office and the Navajo Nation said that findings from a recent feasibility study have paved the way for construction on five possible sites within the ranch.

After an August work session, the land commission announced pre-construction plans for the project’s proposed Site I, approximately 1,321 acres in San Juan County that adjoin the Bisti Substation on New Mexico State Highway 371, north of De-Na-Zin Wash, according to a Sept. 9 Navajo Nation Office of the Speaker press release.

Pasadena, Calif.-based Tetra Tech Inc. completed the study for the project on June 30, according to Scott Prosuch, the company’s senior program manager.

The study, which was funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Tribal Energy Program, analyzed the project’s socioeconomic potential, the salability of the solar-generated power, the project’s capacity and its environmental impacts.

Reached by phone, Walter Phelps — Land Commission chairman and Navajo Nation Council delegate representing Cameron, Coalmine Canyon, Leupp, Tolani Lake and Tsidi To’ii chapters — said, if constructed, the solar farm plans are aggressive.

“If they were to develop all the identified sites for the (solar farm) and fully build out the whole project, it would be one of the larger facilities in the country and certainly with the Navajo Nation,” Phelps said.

Phelps said that renewable energy is growing in popularity on the Navajo Nation, and with an abundance of sunny days in the region, the move toward solar power makes good sense.

“This is one of those things, renewable energy, that has value,” Phelps said. “The majority of our people are interested in it. It’s an easier energy initiative that folks seem to embrace in connection to fossil fuels. This is clean energy.”

Phelps said the commission values the move toward renewable energy and believes the Navajo Nation is moving toward greater diversification of energy sources.

“I think it’s smart for the Navajo Nation to diversify in energy,” Phelps said. “We can’t put all our stakes in one, in fossil fuels. The way oil prices are going right now, we can’t predict how things will go, so you have to diversify. That’s the future.”

According to the study, if the proposed solar farm project is completely constructed, it would contain about 9 million photovoltaic solar panels and use 200 square feet of glass.

The farm would also mean a significant number of jobs, both short- and long-term, it says.

“Short-term jobs during the 1- to 3-year construction phase could employ 1,000 workers for each 100-megawatt photovoltaic power plant,” according to the study. Over a 25 year-period, operations and maintenance of the farm could employ 15 to 30 workers with annual wages totalling $1 million for each 100-megawatt plant.

Phelps hopes the project continues. Pre-construction entails finalizing design plans that are necessary if a developer is to step in and see the solar project through to completion, he said.

“The ability to produce energy on the scale that this project may be able to produce is significant,” he said. “It would be a shame to lose it.”

James Fenton is the business editor of The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4621.