Workshop focuses on solar development opportunities for Navajo Nation chapters
Officials from several chapters attend event in Nenanhezad
NENANHEZAD — Navajo Nation chapters could see financial rewards if they develop solar arrays, but they likely would face numerous challenges in developing those arrays, experts told those attending a workshop today at the Nenanhezad Chapter house.
The Utility-Scale Renewable Energy Workshop focused on the issue of selling electricity to markets that are trying to grow their renewable energy use. While the arrays could be located in areas where not everyone has access to electricity, they would not provide electricity to those homes, according to Karin Wadsack, project director for the Northern Arizona University Tribal Clean Energy Resource Center.
The workshop was part of a memorandum of agreement between the Navajo Nation, and Arizona State University and Northern Arizona University to look at the potential for renewable energy development on the reservation. The work is funded by a $100,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce Economic Development Authority.
Representatives from the San Juan, Upper Fruitland and Huerfano chapters attended the workshop to learn about how renewable energy could benefit their chapter.
Challenges include transmission, land
One of the big challenges would be the transmission of the energy that is produced by solar arrays. Wilda Anagal, a subcontractor with the Navajo Nation Division of Natural Resources through the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, identified several locations on the Navajo Nation that would be ideal for solar arrays.
She explained that the locations are close to substations and meet screening requirements for biological and cultural resources. The sites are considered ideal because of their proximity to transmission sites and would not require chapters to invest a lot of money in transmission infrastructure. And the presence of certain archaeological, and plant and animal elements can eliminate a site from consideration for development.
Anagal said solar development will not be limited to those locations, but arrays could be more expensive if the developers also have to build lines to get the power to the national grid.
The Navajo Nation has a head start in accessing transmission, according to Kris Mayes, a professor at Arizona State University and the co-director of the Energy Policy Innovation Council. She said the Navajo Nation owns 500 megawatts of transmission rights on the lines leaving the Navajo Generating Station, another factor that would allow the tribe to avoid investing in transmission infrastructure.
In order to launch a solar project, a chapter house would be required to submit a request to the Navajo Land Department to withdraw land to be used for a solar array. Navajo Nation chapters are required to request land withdrawals for development of projects. The withdrawal gives the chapter the right to use the land for a designated purpose, such as building a community cemetery, a judicial complex or an energy development facility.
Navajo Land Department manager Mike Halona walked the audience through the process of withdrawing land, which would require the adoption of a resolution supporting that move from the chapter. If the withdrawal is granted, the chapter house could have an analysis done of biological or cultural resources on the site. If the land does not contain significant biological or cultural resources, the chapter could get permission from the land department to begin the development of a solar array.
Another challenge the chapters could face is the amount of land required for construction of a solar array. Solar fields typically require more acreage than fossil fuel facilities, according to Carson Pete, a faculty member in Northern Arizona University’s mechanical engineering department.
A 27-megawatt array like the Kayenta solar field developed by the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority requires about 300 acres of land. In contrast, the coal-powered Navajo Generating Station, located on 1,786 acres, generates more than 2,200 megawatts of electricity.
Pete said the average house uses 5 kilowatts of electricity each month. That means the 300-acre solar array near Kayenta could power approximately 5,400 houses.
A one megawatt array generally requires between five and 10 acres, Pete said.
Opportunities include a steady stream of revenue
Wadsack said solar array developers in the West typically are paying $200 to $800 an acre annually to lease land for 20 to 30 years.
There are also other options available for chapters to raise money from solar arrays that are built on chapter land. Chapter officials can choose to receive less money up front for leasing the land in exchange for receiving a portion of the profits from the sale of electricity the array generates.
Wadsack said building solar arrays creates lots of jobs. She cited the Kayenta solar array, which opened last year, had about 200 people working to install it. She said those installers received job training and some have been able to work on other solar installations, including one in Gallup.
The market for solar energy is growing, Mayes said. States like Hawaii, California, Nevada, Arizona and New Mexico have implemented renewable portfolio standards, which require a portion of utilities’ energy to come from renewable sources. New Mexico requires 20 percent of the energy sold by utilities in the state to come from renewable sources by 2020. While the utility is required to provide a certain amount of renewable energy to its customers, that energy does not necessarily have to be generated in the state. Hawaii has established a renewable portfolio standard of 100 percent by 2045.
“Why shouldn’t the Navajo Nation be a seller of renewable energy for these utilities?” Mayes said.
Mayes said the demand for renewable energy is partly due to its comparatively low cost. She said over the past decade, solar and wind power have become less expensive than fossil fuels. She cited some recent solar projects that will produce electricity for less than 3 cents per kilowatt.
“The utility has a duty to its ratepayers to produce energy that is basically the lowest cost,” Mayes said.
Hannah Grover covers government for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4652 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.