History was made on the Navajo Nation on May 15, 2017, when the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority (NTUA) and its wholly owned subsidiary NGI – Kayenta Inc. officially put the Kayenta Solar Facility into operation. As the first-of-its-kind utility-scale solar project within the Navajo Nation, it will enhance clean energy initiatives by supplying 27.3 MW of electricity to the Kayenta grid.
Located in Arizona, on 300 acres near the sandstone buttes south of Monument Valley, the solar plant can produce enough electricity to power about 13,000 homes. The project is significant in that it makes the Navajo Nation the first among all Native Nations to develop and implement a utility-scale solar facility, moving it from the position of having to purchase energy from outside the reservation to being able to sell electricity back to the grid. This will contribute to the financial security of its economy. According to NTUA government and public affairs manager Deenise Becenti, this is the culmination of a long-held desire.
The Navajo Nation (NN) is a Native American territory spanning 27,000 miles, or about 17,544,500 acres in northeastern Arizona, southeastern Utah, and northwestern New Mexico. Originally designated as the “Navajo Indian Reservation” in Article II of the 1868 Navajo Treaty, its name was changed in 1969 to the Navajo Nation.
Mining of coal and uranium provided a significant source of income in the latter part of the 20th century, but most of the mines have since closed and a coal-fired generating station near Page, AZ, will be closing in December 2019.
The coal plant was built to promote pumping power for a water project, explains Glenn Steiger, executive consultant and project manager for NTUA. “It’s a large plant, but it became economically unfeasible now that natural gas is competing, so it’s being closed because it’s too costly to operate.”
Although its closure is not directly related to the solar project, it does “advance clean energy on the reservation long known for fossil fuel development,” according to the Arizona Daily Sun.
Steiger says the NTUA was “looking to develop renewable energy on the reservation” because the expansive landholding offers extensive potential for renewables. “We wanted to provide renewable energy and financial benefits.”
The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority began as a small water utility in Shiprock, NM, in 1959. It has grown into the largest multi-utility enterprise owned and operated by a Native American tribe. It currently supplies electricity, water, natural gas, solar power, and wastewater treatment to residents within the Navajo Nation, operating under a tariff rate, with one of the lowest electricity rates in the western US.
NTUA’s mission is to work for the people, borrowing a phrase from Navajo culture meaning “we work for you:” Naa’haan’deel’nish. As part of that mission, it provides assistance to tribal agencies and tribal communities to obtain federal grants to address utility needs.
Initial development began in 2013 when NTUA began looking for appropriate sites. One of the early challenges in the project was finding available land. The Kayenta community supported the project and voted in favor of it, paving the way for development.
Once a site was located in 2015, NGI-Kayenta, Inc., NTUA, contractor Isolux Corsán and top tribal leaders, including NN President Russell Begaye, NN Vice President Jonathan Nez, NN Speaker LoRenzo Bates, NN Resources and Development Chairman Alton Joe Shepherd, and Kayenta Council Delegate Nathaniel Brown officially broke ground in an open field just north of Kayenta.
Construction on the design-build project began in September of the following year and took about nine months to complete. Grading was done to “get rid of high spots,” says Steiger. Next, the steel posts were installed. Once those were in the ground, crews built the framework for the trackers and mounted the panels on top of the posts. And then there was “a lot of wiring.”
Steiger says the installation was “fairly simple” and “not different from other solar photovoltaic installations, except that it’s the first one done by Native Americans.”
The Kayenta Solar Project is the second US solar power plant construction by Isolux Corsán, which has extensive experience worldwide in photovoltaic solar plant construction. Although the contractor was experienced, many of the workers on this project were not. At the height of the project, 250 people worked on it. Approximately 200 of them were Navajos who were trained on the job to perform construction of the structure and panels, as well as wiring.
One of the project’s goals was to provide jobs for local residents. Steiger explains that the Navajo Nation experiences high unemployment and low incomes, but calls the project “very successful” in achieving this goal. Only one full-time employee remains at the station. A third-party firm—First Solar—operates and maintains the plant. “Only 4–5 employees are needed,” explains Steiger.
Although the construction jobs were short-lived, he says that after the project was completed, he received a call from a developer in Albuquerque who wanted trained and skilled labor, so many of the workers found further employment there, thanks to their hands-on training in solar plant construction.
In addition, Becenti told The Daily Wildcat that if NTUA is able to get another project started, there is a skilled Navajo workforce ready.
The installation provided jobs for local residents.
Power to the People
According to Steiger, the project consists of 119.301 photovoltaic cells, or panels—each of which is 3 feet by 5 feet—mounted on an axis in an array of about 300 panels across 200 acres. The panels were made in Malaysia by Jinko.
Each array is on a single-axis tracker—a motor programmed to move with the daily path of the sun. “It’s beneficial because we get more production by following the sun.”
The panels generate DC power that goes into the inverter at 10 stations, where it is converted to AC power before proceeding into the substation as 26,000 watts. From there, it is transformed into 69,000 volts (V) and enters the grid at 59,000 V. Over the 25-year life of the plant, it is expected to generate up to 1,900 GWh of energy.
The plant has a 25-year life cycle due to the fact that the panels degrade over time. “The issue is degradation of output,” explains Steiger. “At a certain point, it’s no longer efficient and they must be replaced.” However, the base output was calculated with degradation included, he adds.
Currently, all of the energy produced is being used on the reservation, feeding the two major substations, Becenti explains. However, it’s a bit more complicated.
For the first two years, NTUA will be selling all of the output to SRP, a large Phoenix utility, through a power purchase agreement. “Pure energy gets put into the grid in Kayenta to serve the Kayenta area,” explains Steiger. The Navajo Nation is contractually bound to sell 27.3 MW to SRP. “We’ll make a small margin on the sale,” acknowledges Steiger.
Becenti sees the facility as a demonstration that renewable energy facilities can be built on the Navajo land, helping to establish a green economy. One of the benefits of a green economy is revenue. She estimates that there are 15,000 homes within NTUA’s service territory without electricity.
Ron Trosper, a University of Arizona American Indian Studies professor, told The Daily Wildcat that green energy generation is the way electricity utilities used to operate: generating and distributing energy under the same enterprise. He says that only in recent years did they separate the two operations.
The project enables a green energy economy by allowing communities outside the reservation to purchase power generated within the Navajo Nation. Typically, NTUA purchases power from Tucson Electric Power and the Public Service Company of New Mexico that is then distributed to NTUA substations, and finally to the homes the utility services. Now, that energy is being supplemented via the Kayenta Solar Facility.
The NTUA has a two-year power purchase agreement with Salt River Project to sell the environmental attributes from the Kayenta Solar Project to Salt River Project.
In addition to generating revenue and jobs, this project provides reliability to the system. Due to the size of the Navajo Nation, electricity distribution is difficult and costly. “It’s so spread out,” reflects Steiger. Previously, it had no generation of its own. Access to affordable electricity is important to the community’s welfare. “This is the first generation on the reservation. It’s important to have a source of energy.”
Because the Navajo Nation recognized the benefits of the project, Steiger says they made it easy for the project to obtain the necessary permits and complete the required environmental studies.
This was not a controversial project, he says. The only pushback came from some of the people who live in the areas because they had been granted grazing rights that they were being asked to relinquish.
An important part of the Navajo economy and culture is based on the raising of sheep and goats. However, in order to prevent damage from them and from the wild horses in the region, the solar arrays needed to be fenced and equipped with cameras. “We don’t want to disrupt their rights,” says Steiger, “but they had to in order for the project to proceed.”
The tribal utility covered the cost of the construction loan for the $55 million solar farm and the $6 million interconnection to get power to the grid through federal solar investor tax credits and the two-year power purchase and renewable energy credit agreement with the Salt River Project. NTUA did a financial analysis to determine economic feasibility, based on the sale of both energy and renewable energy credits.
By being part of the rural utility service—typical of an electric co-op—Steiger says NTUA gets favorable funding. “We got construction funding from a subset of RUS, which is part of the federal government.” They have now switched to long-term funding through RUS.
“The concern was that the plant would be a burden in electric rates,” continues Steiger, “but it was not included in the rate base. It pays for itself.” He acknowledges that after the PPA expires, if there’s no buyer for the power, it goes into the rate base, but he says it’s still favorable. And, because the Navajo Nation has an abundance of wind and sunlight, costs could be reduced in the long run.
In fact, because of the amount of available land and solar radiance, Steiger says utilities from other states have approached them about building another project to enable them to buy power. California and Arizona (although not the Navajo Nation) enforce high renewable energy portfolio requirements, making another project attractive.
“It’s a good location,” observes Steiger. “We can export to California, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico. We built on 200 acres; we have 360 more available, so we can double the size. There are limitations on what we can put into the grid, but we’re looking into expansion.”
He says they’re already looking at other locations. “The reservation is so large—and there are so many well-suited in many locations.”“It’s a very successful project,” concludes Steiger. It’s so successful, in fact, that other Native American nations are interested in renewable energy sources and considering new generation sources and managing distribution on their own lands.