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Navajo Energy Project Powerless

PART TWO

The proposed Desert Rock energy project in northwest New Mexico could give the Navajo Nation’s struggling economy a boost, supporters say. Navajo President Joe Shirley says the coal-powered plant will provide energy to nearby states, create 1,000 construction jobs, 300 full-time operations jobs and generate $50 million a year for the Navajo Nation.

What the power plant won’t do, however, is provide electricity to the thousands of Navajos now living without it.

On the Navajo Nation, 18,000 homes lack electricity — roughly one-third of the population. Many Navajos spend their lives without electric power, because they live in remote areas where it’s difficult and expensive to run power lines. The lack of power can result in health and safety risks for these residents, who must find alternative means for light and heat.

The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, or NTUA, which is working on the electrification of these areas, is pressing for solutions using solar and wind power.

Within the last few years, solar-and-wind hybrid systems have been installed in some homes and now 307 Navajo homes are powered by solar energy. While there are limitations, said Larry Ahasteen, the NTUA renewable energy specialist, small-scale projects like this show what solar and wind can do at a lower cost than conventional energy.

The Dept. of Energy has provided $2 million over two years to fund this program. That isn’t enough to provide electricity to all who need it, since each solar unit is $18,000. These units produce about 2 Kilowatts a day — enough to power some lights, a small TV and possibly a small fridge. "It’s very limited," said Ahasteen, "We have to really educate our customers on how to manage their load."

But, according to Ahasteen, small-scale solar power is better than the alternative. "A lot of times," he said, "we have families in very isolated areas where it’s not feasible to run a power line costing $30,000 per mile. And then you have to maintain that line too."

Providing electricity to this area may be similar to bringing the basics of modern life to other underdeveloped regions. For example, in rural areas of countries like Kenya, communities went from having no telephone land-lines to relying primarily on mobile phones. So planning for Navajo homes to jump to innovative solar technologies is not extraordinary.

Small-scale solar or wind projects are in fact providing a model for anti-coal groups like Dine´ Citizens Against Ruining our Environment, or Dine´ CARE, to build on. Dine´ CARE’s recent study, "Energy and Economic Alternatives to the Desert Rock Energy Project," lays out an argument for replacing the coal plant with a large-scale project that would use sunlight, wind, and natural gas. The report suggests it is possible to generate up to 48,000 megawatts of solar energy on Navajo land and up to 11,000 megawatts of wind power on tribal lands in northeastern Arizona.

The group claims that this could create more revenue and more jobs than Desert Rock. It says that alternative energy could create 2,000 construction jobs and 500 full-time jobs.

The spokesman for Sithe Global Energy, the company behind Desert Rock, strongly disagreed. "They don’t know what they’re talking about," said Frank Maisano, the spokesman. "We build plants for a living, so we know what we’re talking about."

Maisano says renewable energy projects should not be done alone. "I’m an advocate for renewables," he said. "We need to have both renewables and the coal project. It can’t be one or the other. It has to be both. For those who say renewables can do more and create more jobs, they’re wrong…They can’t produce the baseload power that the region needs."

George Hardeen, communications director for the Office of the President of the Navajo Nation, which supports the coal-powered plant, agrees. "What they’re recommending," he said, talking about Dine´ CARE, "is simply not feasible. Where are you going to get the land to put solar panels up that will equal the amount of electricity Desert Rock will create?"

But William Beckman, the director of the University of Wisconsin’s Solar Energy Laboratory, says the region is prime for solar power. Beckman says solar energy’s potential is greatest in remote areas of the U.S. Southwest. Photovoltaic, or solar, systems can convert about 10 to 20 percent of incident sunlight into electrcity, he says. In the Southwest, where sunlight is abundant and land inexpensive, this could translate to a lot of energy.

The biggest obstacle to solar energy is usually cost, said Beckman, though this is less of an issue in remote areas. In populated areas, the cost of Photovoltaic-generated energy is higher than the cost of conventional energy; but, in isolated areas, solar plants tend to be more cost effective, Beckman said.

Job creation is also one of solar energy’s draws, according to James Mason of the Solar Energy Campaign, a pro-solar group in New York. "Our research indicates that a 1-gigawatt PV manufacturing…creates 15,000 jobs," said Mason, "whereas the same number of jobs for a 1-gigawatt coal plant is 5,000 jobs."

So far, renewable energy projects of the size Dine´ CARE is suggesting have not garnered support from the local Navajo government, which continues to focus on Desert Rock. The Navajo Nation council, which has high hopes for the plant, approved the project by a vote of 66 to 7.

For now, Navajos, some living without power, have only federal government funding to rely on. Even for already existing renewable energy projects, though, funds are sporadic, said Lizana Pierce, project manager for the Dept. of Energy’s Tribal Energy Program. But, she said, "Many of the tribes are looking at very large scale. Most of the tribes in the Great Plains are looking at large-scale wind production. In the Southwest, there’s predominately a lot of interest in solar."

Since 2002, the Tribal Energy Program has been able to fund 91 tribal projects. This year, funds will amount to $6 million for such projects. But Pierce’s program is relatively small. The Tribal Energy Program — the only government program working on electrification of tribal lands–employs just five full-time employees.

Even these small-scale projects can bring energy only to those who really need it, one house at a time, said Ahasteen of the NTUA. "Right now, everybody takes it for granted that you have electric power," he said, "but a lot of these families, they don’t have nothing. Once you give them the opportunity to get that electric power, whether it’s conventional or through renewable, you kind of give an opportunity for that family to be more self-sustaining and be more active."

For many Navajos, electricity is not just a modern convenience. Most families, said Ahasteen, use kerosene lamps for light, wood stoves for heat and propane for cooking–which create serious health risks, not to mention fire hazards. Kerosene, for example, generates a large amount of CO2 inside the confined space of small houses, which, even with ventilation, can be harmful when inhaled.

Mason and his colleagues laid out a model for a national solar energy plan in the January issue of Scientific American magazine. He says their findings are consistent with Dine´CARE’s conclusions. According to Scientific American, the "grand solar plan" to use solar energy to end U.S. dependence on foreign oil by 2050 would require $420 billion in subsides over 39 years.

The Dine´ CARE study on energy alternatives states that the use of renewable natural resources can be viewed as part of traditional Navajo beliefs. According to Navajo fundamental laws, the report says, wind, or Nílch’í, "generates and sustains all life forms," and the sun, manifested by the sun god Jóhonaa’éí, is a "supernatural entity which restores balance after social ills and abuse of freedom and powers wreak havoc in the worlds prior to modernity."

"In Navajo philosophy," the NTUA’s Ahasteen said, "Mother Earth is the mother, our sky is our father, we take reverence to that, we give offering, and we protect that…Renewable energy is a Navajo concept because it’s using Mother Earth as a way for providing for us."

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