“It’s like we exported everything, including the money. The resource, the energy, and the money all went out the door,” said Brett Isaac, one of the founders and the co-CEO of Navajo Power. “I don’t want renewables to have the same narrative.”
Navajo Power is an energy development company set up as a public benefit corporation; in other words, it wants to make a profit but also make a difference. Its focus is on developing utility-scale clean energy projects on tribal lands in a way that will bring real benefits and opportunities to local communities.
Too often, the communities that will feel the biggest direct impacts from an energy project have the least say in shaping it, Isaac said in a recent interview. The deals and decisions are made by others—perhaps the federal government, the central tribal government, or some far-off electric utility or bank—and communities end up with “the scraps of whatever was left.”
“We took the stance that, no, we’re going to work with communities first. We’re going to help them envision success,” said Isaac, who is Navajo and Hopi. The idea, he said, is to empower communities to have a meaningful voice in how energy projects are developed and a fair share in any long-term benefits.
Navajo Power, which is majority Native American-owned, has adopted some basic principles to help make that happen. For example, the company pledges to reinvest at least 80% of any profits it makes into new projects and community benefits. Also, the communities where projects are built become shareholders of Navajo Power; 10% of the company’s ownership is held in a “Turquoise Share” so that any dividends distributed would benefit these communities.
Isaac explained that the company wants to use capitalism as a “tool” rather than a “weapon.” Part ownership not only gives communities a stake in the company’s future, he said, but also gives investors an additional incentive to support these projects, because of the potential multiplier effects.
As a developer, Navajo Power does not build, own, or operate power plants; rather, its job is to take a project from the idea stage to the point where construction can begin. This means securing land, conducting technical studies, obtaining permits, finding utilities or other offtakers for the electricity, negotiating contracts with construction companies and plant operators, and putting together financing, among other steps.
The early stage of energy development is a risky business with many moving parts, and even projects that end up getting built can take a long time to come to fruition. “One seasoned developer once told us, ‘Your project has to die a hundred times before it succeeds,’ and I’ve started to really believe that,” Isaac said with a smile.
On tribal lands, the process can be even more complex than usual, because there are multiple stakeholders and additional layers of government, regulations, engagement, and consent. Good communication is essential, Isaac said, and sometimes the different players—whether community members or financiers or representatives of energy companies—need help understanding each other’s positions, needs, and priorities.
“Navajo Power kind of plays that intermediary role,” he said. “We understand both sides. We’re from both worlds.”
Navajo Power got its start in 2018 and now has nine utility-scale projects in the pipeline at different stages of development, according to Isaac. Three of these are on the Navajo Nation, and the company is also working with the Tohono O’odham Nation in southern Arizona, as well as with tribes in Oregon and California.
The only project the company has made public so far is the Painted Desert Power Project, a 750-megawatt solar farm slated to be built in the Coalmine Canyon Chapter of the Navajo Nation. (The nation is composed of 110 entities called chapters.)
The project site is near a major transmission substation, in an area of abandoned uranium mines. Solar farms take up a lot of room, so Navajo Power avoids locations that might have more valuable uses for the community, such as for tourism, farming, or sheep grazing.
For impact investors, who look for social or environmental returns in addition to financial gains, the Painted Desert site is especially attractive because it provides an opportunity to repurpose land that has been damaged, according to Isaac. He expects construction to begin next year.
A vast, starkly beautiful expanse covering more than 27,000 square miles across parts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah, the Navajo Nation is by far the largest Indian reservation in land area in the United States. In fact, it is larger than 10 of the country’s 50 states.
This land—Diné Bikéyah, or Navajoland—contains a wealth of energy resources. The official Navajo Nation website even links the creation of its formal system of government to the discovery of oil. “In 1923, a tribal government was established to help meet the increasing desires of American oil companies to lease Navajoland for exploration,” it says. Among the symbols on the Navajo Nation’s flag is an oil derrick.
The tribe’s economy has long depended not just on oil and gas but on other extractive industries too. Uranium mining, which started in the 1940s and continued for four decades, left a dark environmental and public health legacy. The 1960s and 1970s, meanwhile, saw the growth of the coal industry, as coal-fired power plants were built on and around the Navajo Nation to generate electricity for millions of customers in far-off cities.
Today, several coal mines and power plants are winding down operations or have already been shuttered. The biggest of these, Navajo Generating Station, closed in 2019. Operated on the Navajo Nation by a public utility company in Arizona called the Salt River Project, it was the largest coal-fired power plant in the Western United States, with a generating capacity of 2.25 gigawatts. Last December, the company demolished the plant’s three smokestacks, which had towered on the horizon near Page, Arizona, for 45 years.
“The COVID-19 pandemic was still raging, and the Navajo Nation was closed to visitors. Still, hundreds of people gathered to witness the demolition in person,” the magazine High Country News reported. The Kayenta Mine, which supplied coal to the plant, also closed in 2019.
Despite all the electric power produced by Navajo Generating Station and other plants in recent decades, energy equity remains well out of reach. High Country News summed it up this way: “Many residents of the Navajo Nation still lack electricity in their homes, but for decades their coal made the lights on the Las Vegas Strip visible from space.”
During a two-day virtual forum organized by Navajo Power in April, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez noted that between 30% and 40% of residents still lack electricity, and therefore running water too.
“We recognize that the Navajo Nation has been providing electricity for the Western United States, all the Southwest, for many years, while many of our own people are not connected to the grid. That’s going to change, with your help and your support,” Nez told the Navajo Power Energy Roundtable, which brought together renewable energy experts and other participants.
Nez’s administration has said it will prioritize renewable energy, including off-grid solar power and energy storage for Navajo household that to not have electricity, and support the transition to a balanced, diversified energy portfolio. In 2019, Nez and tribal Vice President Myron Lizer issued the Navajo Sunrise Proclamation, laying out “a new economic vision for the Navajo people through healing the land, fostering clean energy development, and providing leadership for the energy market for the Navajo people.”
While much of the tribal government’s attention in the last year and a half has been taken up with COVID-19, the Navajo Nation remains committed to renewable energy development, Nez said at the forum. “There are many sources of clean energy that can be harnessed and benefit the people in the Southwest, but most importantly, the Navajo people,” he said.
Renewable energy presents enormous opportunities for Indian Country in general and the Navajo Nation in particular. A 2018 report assessing the renewable energy potential on tribal lands, prepared by the U.S. Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory, found that the Navajo reservation ranked at the top in terms of the technical potential for generating electricity from solar and wind.
The market seems to be wide open too. During the Navajo Power Energy Roundtable, Uday Varadarajan of the Rocky Mountain Institute said that the energy transition could provide an opportunity for the United States to add 420 gigawatts of clean energy over the next 10 years. That figure takes into account projected load growth, additional growth through more electrification in industry and transportation, retirement of uneconomic fossil fuel plants, and climate change-related goals.
Not only the federal government but many states, cities, and counties have set ambitious targets for decarbonization, as have many companies and even electric utilities themselves. Varadarajan said that 71% of customers across the country are served by utilities with goals for reducing carbon emissions.
The trend away from coal in electricity production is already well underway, according to Varadarajan. Coal accounted for 50% of electric power production in the United States in 2005; today, its share is down to 19%. About two-thirds of the decrease reflects a shift to natural gas and a third to wind and solar, he said.
For all the opportunities, though, a transition to renewables in places like the Navajo Nation presents significant challenges. As several participants in the Energy Roundtable noted, it will not be easy to replace the hundreds of well-paid coal jobs that are disappearing.
Take, for example, the 55-megawatt Kayenta Solar Project, an initiative of the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority (NTUA) and the Salt River Project completed in 2019. The electricity generated at the solar plant supplies Navajo customers; it displaced some of the energy purchased from outside the nation.
At the Energy Roundtable, NTUA representative Derek Dyson said the project had created more than 430 jobs during its two construction phases, 90% of which went to Navajo citizens, and had provided thousands of hours of specialized training. At the operational level, though, the project created only three permanent jobs on site.
As someone who grew up in a coal community on the Navajo Nation, Brett Isaac certainly understands the job concerns. Both his grandfathers worked at a coal plant until they retired, and other relatives and friends’ parents worked at coal mines or in other parts of the supply chain.
A few years ago, when Isaac first started talking about renewable energy, a common sentiment he heard was, “You guys are going to take our jobs.” His answer was that in reality, it was market economics that would likely do that.
“We’re trying to get out in front and create opportunities so that when that happens, we have a solution to help ease the burden,” Isaac said, adding that people are increasingly aware now of the need for a more dynamic economy.
Isaac believes that the energy transition offers a chance for Native American communities to take more control of their own development and build lasting value. When Navajo Generating Station closed, he said, “the Navajo Nation and the communities were in no better of a position than they were when that thing was built.”
At the energy forum, Navajo Nation Council Delegate Carl Roessel Slater argued that it’s time to disrupt the model in which energy development is driven by large corporations and utility companies “whose allegiances are fundamentally elsewhere.” The local communities most affected must be at the table, he said, and there must be more competition and economic diversity.
“We need Navajo people-owned entities, Navajo Nation-owned entities, and external entities competing to provide the best possible impact for our people, communities, and nation,” Slater said.
Brett Isaac is convinced that renewable energy can provide a solid economic foundation for tribal communities beyond any direct or indirect jobs the sector may create. He wants to show the market that these are good places in which to invest. In the long term, he wants people to reject the “race to the bottom” on energy prices and recognize the value of clean energy produced the right way.
“I always kind of equate it to the food sovereignty movement,” Isaac said. “We’re comfortable paying a little more knowing where our food comes from, knowing that it supports people we care about. And I think energy will have that same conversation at a certain point, where we will want to know where our energy came from and how it impacted the community we sourced it from”.
Every household on the Navajo Nation deserves electric power. On that, everyone agrees.
“If you don’t have power, you can’t have broadband. If you don’t have power, you can’t have running water,” said Wahleah Johns, Senior Advisor for the Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs in the U.S. Department of Energy.
Johns, who is Navajo, said this an issue “close to my heart.” Speaking at the Navajo Power Energy Roundtable in April, she talked about electricity as a critical part of infrastructure that can transform a household. “It’s such a beautiful thing to see—the growth, the creativity, the productivity of the family that has not been afforded power before.”
Many Navajo families who are not connected to the grid rely on gas-powered generators to provide a few hours of lighting or entertainment every day, or they may have small solar units designed for camping, according to Brett Isaac of Navajo Power. But that’s not enough to plug in a refrigerator, for example; keeping food cold still requires a trip into town to buy ice for a portable cooler.
One study done a few years ago estimated that more than 15,000 homes on the Navajo Nation lack access to electricity, Isaac said. While the cost of building distribution lines to every remote house can reach “preposterous” proportions, he said, neither can distance be an excuse to simply walk away from the problem.
“There are solutions for that, with battery and solar storage.” And, he said, “if there isn’t a solution, we need to keep searching until we find one.” Isaac has himself built many solar energy systems for homes on the Navajo Nation in the past decade, and various other initiatives have provided off-grid units to a few hundred households here and there.
Several factors have stymied faster progress, but the primary one, Isaac said, is simple economics: “It’s not profitable. If it was profitable, of course, there would be companies lining up to try to do something.”
His company has just launched a new venture called Navajo Power Home, in partnership with a like-minded Mexican company called Iluméxico. The plan is to build off-grid residential systems but sell the energy instead of the equipment. Homeowners enter into a long-term contract for electricity at a monthly rate, and the company is responsible for any needed maintenance or upgrades. This type of solution is less expensive than running a generator and doesn’t require the homeowner to make an upfront investment, according to Isaac.
The aim is to make this self-sustaining, he said, rather than counting on subsidies or grants, “because once those expire, where do we go?”.