Urging clean energy and justice for tribal nations

During the 20th century, coal was a cheap and reliable source of electricity. Today it’s relatively expensive and highly polluting. The shift to cleaner, less expensive renewable energy is rapidly underway, and it’s happening faster than anyone expected. Our nation’s task now is to manage that transition in a just and sustainable way so that people living in “coal country,” who made sacrifices to build our economy, are not left behind.

Nowhere is this clearer than on territories of the Navajo and Hopi Nations, where for 50 years the coal-fired Navajo Generating Station (NGS) and Kayenta coal mine provided low-cost power to the Southwest, helping it to grow and prosper.

A large portion of the Navajo and Hopi Nations’ income was derived from power plant lease payments and coal mining royalties. Both operations closed in 2019, resulting in an economic crisis for these Indigenous nations. This crisis, however, provides an opportunity to reimagine a new energy economy that provides more benefits to more people.

Currently, 42 percent of the Navajo Nation remains unemployed, and nearly 40 percent live in poverty. Nearly all the electricity produced at the NGS was exported off the Navajo Nation to Phoenix, Tucson, Las Vegas and Los Angeles. Many families on the Navajo Nation still have limited access to electricity and water. In fact, 75 percent of all U.S. homes without electricity are on the Navajo Nation. The transition from coal can and must address these inequities.

Non-Native energy companies and investors need to step outside their comfort zones to partner with local homegrown companies to assist with redevelopment for communities suffering from the collapse of the coal industry.

The Navajo Nation has embraced the new opportunities afforded by renewable energy to bring jobs to areas across the reservation rather than to just one powerplant and mine. Solar panels can be widely distributed, scaled to need, locally controlled and built and maintained by modestly capitalized companies with roots in neighborhoods, communities and tribes.

Two homegrown renewable energy companies have sprung up on the Navajo Nation in the past several years. Native Renewables is a nonprofit focused on training Navajos to work in the solar industry and install off-grid solar systems for those currently without electricity. Navajo Power is a social benefit corporation focused on utility-scale solar development and is committed to investing profits into local community development projects to “maximize the economic benefits of clean energy for tribal and affected communities.”

But these organizations can’t do it alone. Non-Native energy companies and investors need to step outside their comfort zones to partner with local homegrown companies to assist with redevelopment for communities suffering from the collapse of the coal industry.

Arizona’s two largest electric utilities, Salt River Project (SRP) and Arizona Public Service (co-owners of the NGS), have stepped up to offer transition assistance.

SRP offered replacement jobs to all NGS employees and provided retraining and relocation assistance. Several buildings at the power plant along with the coal railway were donated to the Navajo government. Both utilities offered additional educational and economic development assistance and promised to purchase renewable energy from the tribes to help jumpstart solar development on the reservations. Even with these commitments, more is needed.

As the U.S. embraces ambitious renewable energy goals, we need local, state and national governments to step up to support job retraining programs and economic redevelopment efforts for those workers and communities affected by the decline of coal. In the case of NGS, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation donated its ownership of 500 megawatts of NGS transmission capacity to the Navajo Nation to help get tribal solar resources to market.

Labor unions and trade associations have important roles to play in charting a just and sustainable transition from fossil fuels to renewables. Rather than trying to protect jobs that are doomed to disappear, unions can develop programs to educate and train workers for secure employment in the new energy economy and ensure good pay and benefits. Renewable energy and energy efficiency are the fastest-growing segment of the energy industry. There are already far more jobs in wind and solar than in fossil fuel-based electrical generation, even though wind and solar generated less than 15 percent of the nation’s energy in 2020. 

Trade associations represent businesses with the capital and expertise to invest in infrastructure and manage the energy transition. To successfully adapt during this time of rapid change, business leaders must boldly experiment and innovate, embrace — not resist — change, and think broadly about the human dimensions of the energy transition rather than focusing just on technology and markets.

Finally, we need to rethink how we do business in the 21st century. The concept of “return on investment” should be broadened well beyond revenue to shareholders. It should include returns to the energy system infrastructure to make it resilient in the face of climate change, returns to the workers that generate and distribute our electricity, returns to the communities supporting the energy economy, and investment in rural areas that have gained little of the nation’s prosperity.

The fossil-fuel economy has taken wealth from everyone to pay for gasoline and electricity and concentrated it in a relatively small number of corporate coffers. It has been a generator of wealth inequality.

Renewable energy, on the other hand, has the potential to reverse that trend. For the first time in over a century our energy needs can be partly supplied from the grassroots rather than the likes of Duke Energy and ExxonMobil — all while addressing the climate crisis and reducing our environmental impact on the planet.

Let’s work together to build back better.

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