NTEC turns its attention to clean energy

Tribal entity plans feasibility study for proposed geothermal project at Tohatchi hot springs

James Fenton
From left, Navajo Transitional Energy Co.'s Kevin Felix, Colorado School of Mines associate professor Masami Nakagawa, graduate students Qifei Niu, Luci Dunnington, Juan Hurtado and NTEC's Sam Woods stand outside NTEC's offices in Farmington on July 12.

FARMINGTON — A tribal entity established for the purpose of acquiring a Fruitland coal mine is now pursuing a clean energy project in Tohatchi.

The Navajo Transitional Energy Co., or NTEC, moved closer to adding renewable energy development to its energy portfolio after Tohatchi Chapter approved a feasibility study for the company's proposed geothermal project at a hot springs on the east side of Tohatchi.

Tohatchi Chapter members on June 22 passed a resolution that gave the go-ahead for NTEC to seek "resource exploration" and the study.

NTEC spokesman Erny Zah said the entity plans to spend approximately $84,600 on the study, which is being led by graduate students from the Colorado School of Mines in Golden, Colo.

Last fall, NTEC established a partnership with the school to develop the project, which would also add jobs and support student research and project collaboration by Navajo Technical University students and faculty, according to Masami Nakagawa, Colorado School of Mines associate professor.

Nakagawa and three graduate students — Luci Dunnington, Juan Hurtado and Qifei Niu — spent a week in Tohachi in July to test the potential energy resources in the area.

Preliminary tests of the subsurface water bubbling up in Tohatchi showed it is about 38 degrees Celsius, or 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit, not quite warm enough to produce power without help, Nakagawa said.

Sam Woods, NTEC’s business development manager, said the project will first focus on heating and cooling greenhouses. The Navajo Forestry Department already grows spruce, pine and other trees in four greenhouses in Fort Defiance, Ariz. Those greenhouses are heated and cooled with natural gas. Woods wants to replicate those greenhouses in Tohatchi without natural gas by using the warm water source.

Woods said the project will also spur economic development.

Zah said a future land allocation study could result in a possible 700-acre "geo-park" that would support "renewable and alternative energy research and production" in Tohatchi.

Nakagawa said the geothermal project in Tohatchi involves multiple stakeholders and will help create jobs.

"We plan to grow this project together with the community," Dunnington said.

Funding for the project will come from potential grants from the U.S. Department of Energy and others, Zah said.

NTEC CEO Clark Moseley said in a press release that the resolution passed by the Tohatchi Chapter satisfies the tribal energy company's charter mandate to invest "at least 10 percent of (NTEC's) net income into clean energy project development."

Woods said the project's core value is capacity building for the coal company, the community and students who will work collaboratively. If the project is successful, it could be replicated in other communities across the 27,000-square-mile reservation, Woods said.

"The project is a bottom-up approach, involving the community the whole way," Woods said. "This creates an innovation hub and center for learning that can be done in other Navajo communities. The tribe sits on a wealth of rich resources. It makes sense to have more of these projects."

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