Tribes, Utilities Move Away from Coal Towards a Renewable and Sustainable Future

“The same day that a Navajo Nation legislative committee rejected a bill favoring acquisition of the coal-fired Navajo Generating Station, legislator Elmer Begay introduced a new bill to ‘move the Navajo Nation beyond coal source revenues and forward to sustainable, renewable energy sources.”  - PV MAGAZINE: Navajo Nation Bill Would Replace 2.25 GW of Coal with Renewables

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The Kayenta Solar Facility is the first solar facility on the Navajo Nation, and a sign of the future.   credit: Navajo Times

The Kayenta Solar Facility is the first solar facility on the Navajo Nation, and a sign of the future.

credit: Navajo Times

The announcement of the decision to close the coal-fired Navajo Generating Station (NGS) in Northern Arizona has been applauded by environmentalists, but the plant’s looming closure is not great news for the Hopi and Navajo tribes. For more than 40 years NGS and the Kayenta coal mine serving the plant have provided more than 700 jobs and $40 million per year to the Navajo and Hopi Nations, making their economies highly dependent on coal. 

The story is a common one these days. Utilities are pulling out of coal rapidly. The San Juan Generating Station in Northern New Mexico and the Colstrip Power Plant in Montana are also in the process of shutting down, potentially leaving communities and tribes that have been highly dependent on coal in a difficult position.

But another common story is that those communities are moving forward beyond coal. Given the opportunity to buy NGS and keep it operational, the Navajo Nation has declined, and new legislation has been introduced to move the energy economy of the Tribe towards renewable energy.

New Mexico has a new law that outlines a plan to not only move beyond coal, but to transition communities to renewable energy, including job training and severance for displaced coal workers. The San Juan plant is slated to close in 2022 due to continuing economic losses.

The Colstrip Power Plant is closing two of its four units by 2022, also due to economics. And, the owner of the mine that supplies Colstrip, Westmoreland, filed for bankruptcy last year, leaving the status of the plant and hundreds of jobs to the Northern Cheyenne and other nearby tribes in jeopardy. Westmoreland also owns the mine that solely supplies the San Juan Generating Station.

The Northern Cheyenne Tribe in Montana has routinely rejected coal and is moving more towards renewable generation.  credit: Billings Gazette

The Northern Cheyenne Tribe in Montana has routinely rejected coal and is moving more towards renewable generation.

credit: Billings Gazette

The Northern Cheyenne Tribe has for decades rejected efforts to mine the vast deposits of coal on Tribal land, despite the potential economic boom. However, instead of embracing coal, the Tribe has been moving in the other direction. For several years, the Northern Cheyenne have been exploring developing renewable energy as a means towards energy independence and sustainable, well-paying jobs. KiloNewton is currently working with the Tribe to advise on their development of sustainable and renewable energy generation.

There’s a pattern here. Utilities, such as the Public Service Company of New Mexico, the owners of NGS (Salt River Project, Arizona Public Service Co., Tucson Electric Power Co., and NV Energy), and some of the owners of the Colstrip Power Plant (Puget Sound Energy, Portland General Electric), are pulling out of coal rapidly and transitioning to renewable energy. Communities that have been economically dependent on coal are rejecting continuing operations and mining in favor of renewable resources.

The move away from coal towards renewables isn’t just driven by environmental concerns. Economics are playing a large, if not larger, part in the transition.