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Navajo Tribal Utility Authority opens first large-scale solar farm
KAYENTA, Ariz. — An entity of the Navajo Nation has taken its first step to generating electricity by starting a solar farm on 200 acres five miles north of here.
Navajo Tribal Utility Authority is the primary electricity service provider for the tribe and started operating the 27.3-megawatt Kayenta Solar Project in June.
It is the first large-scale solar energy facility on the reservation. The electricity is sold to the Salt River Project for distribution.
Glenn Steiger is project manager for the solar farm, which is visible on the west side of U.S. Highway 163.
"With the Navajo Generating Station shutting down, that leaves a hole in power generation in this region. And we know that part of that hole ultimately will be filled with renewable energy, whether it's solar or wind," Steiger said in an interview during a visit to the site on July 6.
"By us constructing and operating this project, it's giving us substantial experience in doing this, knowing full well there's going to be more of this in the near future," he said.
Each of the 120,000 photovoltaic devices, set in rows that run north to south, are mounted on single axis trackers that follow the movement of the sun.
"Wherever the sun is, that's what it's looking at," Steiger said.
The solar panels are equipped to position flat when wind speeds increase more than 50 mph and there are two weather stations on site that monitor wind speed, temperature and humidity, he said.
For now, the project is operated by First Solar Inc. in Tempe, and there are plans to bring the controls in house, Steiger said.
Energy is generated as a direct current then converted to alternating current before it interconnects to the nearby 230,000-volt transmission line, owned by the Western Area Power Administration.
Steiger said the line delivers energy across the reservation and into Arizona, California, New Mexico and Utah.
"That's why this location, for us, was ideal," he said adding the solar farm could increase to cover the entire 300 acres leased for the project.
This is the first venture by the tribal enterprise to become a sustainable power supplier.
NTUA General Manager Walter Haase said in an email the project shows that the tribe is ready for large scale renewable energy production.
"This is a huge step into the area of energy production and sales, as well as a gigantic first step toward enhancing the green economy for the Navajo Nation," Haase said.
He added the tribe has always purchased energy from outside sources, but now the tribe can sell electricity produced by the solar farm.
Salt River Project is the project's sole customer.
In December 2015, SRP signed an agreement to purchase renewable energy credits from NTUA.
Scott Harelson, spokesman for SRP, said the pricing terms are confidential but NTUA estimated the project will provide electricity to service approximately 7,700 households.
He added SRP is buying the renewable energy credits for one year, with the possibility of extending the service for a second year.
"SRP is interested in supporting renewable resource development objectives on the Navajo Nation," Harelson said.
The solar project was proposed in 2014 and its placement was proposed in various locations on the reservation.
Deenise Becenti, spokeswoman for NTUA, said multiple sites were considered but the area in Kayenta Chapter was selected because of its proximity to an existing substation.
The tribe entered a lease agreement with NTUA in 2015 for the location. Permission for the acreages was also obtained from individuals who held permits for livestock to graze on the land.
A groundbreaking ceremony was held in April 2016, followed by six months of construction that started last September by Isolux Corsán, an international company that specializes in the building of photovoltaic solar plants.
Becenti said at the height of construction, there were 250 personnel with 195 Navajo workers.
The $60 million facility was built using a construction loan from the National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corporation.
Revenue from the solar project will help NTUA extend electricity to several communities on the reservation, according to an October 2016 press release from the tribal enterprise.
Last year, NTUA finalized an agreement with the tribe's Community Development Block Grant program to increase electrical services to 92 residences.
The tribal enterprise will use revenues from the solar project as matching funds for the grant, the release states.
Haase said in an email this will be the first time most families will have electricity in their homes.
"Using revenue generated from the solar project gives us the ability to bring electric service to these communities and help dramatically raise the standard of living for our Navajo families," he said.
Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636.