Across the country, communities are grappling with the impacts of the energy transition. The Navajo Nation is no exception. However, over the past year, utilities, Navajo-owned energy companies, and local governments have coordinated their efforts to bring new economic activity to the Navajo Nation. The Navajo Nation’s story can offer a model for other communities transitioning away from economic dependence on fossil fuel development.
In November of 2019, the Navajo Generating Station closed. The 2.25 gigawatt, coal-burning power plant had generated electricity since 1974, and both the power station and the nearby Kayenta coal mine which supplied it had become pillars in the economies of Page, Arizona and the Navajo Nation. The closure led to a huge economic contraction, with hundreds of workers becoming unemployed and the municipality losing significant tax revenue. School districts lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in funding and hundreds of students. The district hospital had to reduce services, including in critical areas like the oncology department. Some now unemployed workers worried that they would have to move away from Navajo lands in search of work elsewhere. One writer for the Navajo Times called this a “painful transition.”
However, the tribal government has been quick to engage with new opportunities in clean energy development. In the last month, the Navajo Nation Council approved two new solar projects to be managed by the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority. The combined wattage: 270 megawatts of solar power that will provide tribal customers with reliable electricity. The larger solar plant will create jobs for over three hundred construction workers and will generate over $7 million per year in revenue for the Navajo Nation. In February, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) permitted a 2.2 gigawatt hydropower project that would utilize out-of-commission infrastructure from the NGS. This renewable energy storage and generation site would provide baseload electricity to Navajo customers as well as customers throughout Arizona, California, and Nevada.
In terms of electricity load, employment, and revenue, these new projects can help make up for the loss of the Navajo Generating Station and open a new chapter of clean economic development. This is a meaningful step, especially because electricity reliability is tied to economic growth. These renewable energy investments also offer something fossil-fuel development could not, which is environmental democracy and environmental protection. Rather than being owned by large, outsider companies like the Peabody Energy Company, the solar projects are being overseen by the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority. The Navajo people have experienced egregious environmental injustices in the past, and having agency over the energy system offers the community a way to protect themselves from that again.
As other regions transition away from coal for jobs and electricity, the Navajo Nation can serve as a case study for what happens when a community invests in renewables and works with utilities to establish a quick transition plan. Only time will tell if the hope for a stronger economy and environment come true for the Navajo Nation, but I hope it does. When asked by NPR about the transition within his community, Navajo President Jonathan Nez said, “It starts with embracing change.”
 “Navajo Generating Station,” Bureau of Reclamation, 1 May 2018.
 Fonseca and Snow, “Hopis, Navajos Say They’ll Suffer If Coal-Fired Plant Closes,” The Salt Lake Tribune, 7 Feb. 2018.
 Krista Allen, “Weaning off Coal: Northern Arizona Starts a Painful Transition,” Navajo Times, 13 Feb. 2020.
 Fonseca and Snow, “Hopis, Navajos Say They’ll Suffer If Coal-Fired Plant Closes.”
 Krista Allen, “Weaning off Coal: Northern Arizona Starts a Painful Transition.”
 “Navajo Nation Finalizes Solar Plant Leases on Tribal Land,” AP NEWS, Associated Press, 7 Apr. 2021.
 Kavya Balaraman, “FERC Gives Preliminary Permit to 2.2 GW Storage Project That Would Use Navajo Coal Plant Power Lines,” Utility Dive, 22 Feb. 2021.
 Roger Sorkin and Paul Hirt, “Urging Clean Energy and Justice for Tribal Nations,” GreenBiz, 1 Apr. 2021.
 Jay Apt, et al., “Power Play: A More Reliable U.S. Electric System,” Issues in Science and Technology, vol. 22, no. 4, 2006, pp. 51–58.
 “Navajo Nation Finalizes Solar Plant Leases on Tribal Land,” AP NEWS.
 Jeff Radford, “Stripmining Arid Navajo Lands in the US: Threats to Health and Heritage,” Ambio, vol. 11, no. 1, 1982, pp. 9–14.
 Laurel Morales, “On The Navajo Reservation, Turning From Coal To Renewables,” NPR, 7 Apr. 2019.
One thought on “Beyond the Navajo Generating Station: The Energy Transition in Practice by Ginny Naughton”
This topic is really interesting Ginny! I know that the clean energy transition has always been a controversial issue, but the economic recovery and job growth that it brought for the Navajo Nation is a great example of what a larger scale nationwide energy transition could look like, and hopefully it can prove to skeptics what is possible. We usually talk about the transition to renewables taking years and we set goals like transitioning by 2050, but in this case, the whole community had transitioned in just a few years and has already experienced economic growth. Maybe with real commitment and dedication from policymakers, we could transition the whole nation much faster than our goals. However, I think this case study may be isolated since Native American communities tend to have much more appreciation for nature and experience with environmental injustices. Other areas, like those that are more conservative, will not be so willing to make the switch, which is a large part of why we are limited as a nation in our potential for an energy transition.