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Time for Navajos to move on from coal to renewable energy


A day trip from Navajo Nation to Phoenix is a long drive. It’s a little over five hours from Black Mesa to Phoenix, usually starting and ending with a slow dirt road. If you make the journey, you’ve probably got a good reason.

Peabody Energy coal miners made the trip for a rally at the Phoenix Capitol recently. I can understand that a company will fight for its business, and that employees will speak up.

What’s difficult to understand is the absence of leaders stepping forward to also involve Navajo and Hopi workers and families in a fight for a future that doesn’t hinge on Peabody Energy. I keep expecting to see leadership actively involving communities that have been impacted by the coal mining and the Navajo Generating Station (NGS) power plant. But there is a disturbing silence from Navajo leadership.

Nicole Horseherder

Nicole Horseherder

As a coal company, Peabody won’t face facts that the market for its product is ending. Wealthy executives of a multinational corporation can afford to live in that bubble. Working families cannot. I have relatives who work at Peabody’s Kayenta mine, so this is personal to me, too.

The reality in this case is that there are no longer buyers for Peabody’s Kayenta mine coal. The buyers of power from NGS, which the Kayenta mine supplies, have all concluded that it’s too expensive compared to alternatives. They are closing the power plant in 2019. With no buyers for the power, there is no new owner to emerge.

It’s this stark reality that got me on the road to Phoenix from my home on Black Mesa the same day of the Peabody rally. Instead of driving to the Capitol, though, I went to the Arizona Corporation Commission. It’s the ACC where decisions will be made soon about where some of the major Arizona buyers of electricity will get their power in years to come. The outcome could be either positive – or very negative – for the Navajo economy after coal.

At the ACC, I learned about the proposal by Commissioner Andy Tobin for the state to get 80 percent of its power from clean energy by 2050. That is promising. With so much electricity transmission infrastructure already in place on Navajo Nation, our communities can be put to work building and operating this next generation of solar and wind power to serve the Southwest.

Salt River Project has already started down this path, with one solar project on Navajo Nation that will soon double in capacity. That’s a start, but far more progress is needed, and quickly, for renewable energy to truly deliver the economic impact we need. It’s also vital that this next energy era be developed in a way that doesn’t again see so much of the benefit flowing only over the heads of local communities. More than 15,000 residents on Navajo Nation still have no electric service to their homes.

So how could decisions at the ACC be harmful? It’s the possibility that energy buyers could somehow be permitted to turn away from renewables altogether in the coming years. Locking us into another fossil fuel future isn’t smart economically. It’s definitely not smart for water. Every gas well sucks millions of gallons of water and gas power plants demand a constant source of water for cooling, just like coal. Solar and wind generation, meanwhile, need none.

At the ACC, I tried to make clear that with coal uneconomic and closing we look hard now at the buyers of energy, and at those who regulate in the public interest. After being customers for so many decades of a coal industry on Navajo Nation that has harmed our water and land, these big energy buyers need to be customers now for clean energy resources on tribal land that are economical today.

Renewable energy is an essential part of the solution for our Navajo economy and jobs after coal. I hope more will make the drive to the Phoenix with me next time we need to speak up at the ACC, including our Navajo elected officials. Peabody executives who are denying market realities, while keeping their own golden parachutes near, are not our answer.

— Nicole Horseherder works with Tó Nizhóni Ání, a Navajo community group with members who live in the vicinity of NGS and the Kayenta coal mine on Navajo Nation in northern Arizona.


The views expressed in guest commentaries are those of the author and are not the views of the Arizona Capitol Times.

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