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How the Navajo got their day in the sun

Navajo Generating Station

In late March, during the early hours of the COVID-19 crisis, just as New Yorkers were realizing how many might die, a small solar development company closed a $4 million financing deal. "Closing" is never easy, but getting a half-dozen high-net-worth individuals, family offices and foundations to pony up as the world’s finance markets crashed around them was a triumph. 

Getting the deal done was impressive in its own right, given that private equity had all but frozen in the weeks before and most venture-backed startups were running on fumes, telling their angel investors and anyone who’d listen that they had three months’ financial runway, or less. It seems even more important now, given the terrible toll COVID-19 is having right where the solar is planned: the Navajo Nation.

A young team saddled with ambition and support from their tribal government, this largely native-owned company, Navajo Power, was getting ready to build a major solar project in one of the poorest communities in America. 

"We are working hard to create jobs and build resilient infrastructure for our Nation and for the greater western region," explained Brett Isaac, founder and CEO.

"Navajo has perhaps the highest unemployment in the country at 65 percent — that’s pre-COVID. It is clearly going up, due to the virus. We need to put people back to work in creating the clean energy future. Developing some of the biggest projects in the world and maximizing the benefits for our communities can provide the resources needed to fund a wave of local infrastructure and community economic development initiatives. Clean energy can be our bridge."

A company to watch, and learn from

Navajo Power was co-founded by Isaac and his old friend Dan Rosen, a college dropout from New Jersey. Rosen was adopted by Navajo artist Shonto Begay in his teens and went on to start one of the U.S.’s largest solar loan business, Mosaic. These two and their partners are leading the charge for the Navajo Nation’s just transition, from coal dependence to clean energy superpower.

This movement one day will be studied in colleges around the world; justice can be done.

Such drama around Navajo is justified. This is the largest indigenous community in the United States, with 250,000 people and a land base the size of West Virginia. There is a sordid history of "divide and conquer," involving everyone from Kit Carson to the Sierra Club. The wealth of energy resources on Navajo land invited exploitation throughout the 20th century. Uranium was mined there. And coal. Lots of coal. Mined and burned to provide power for Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Tucson and Phoenix. 

The wealth of energy resources on Navajo land invited exploitation throughout the 20th century. Uranium was mined there. And coal. Lots of coal.

Despite hosting centuries of extraction and decades of power generation, in 2020, more than 15,000 families on Navajo land lack electricity or running water. And surprise, surprise: the local community saw only a pittance for the years that King Coal ravaged its ancestral homeland.

According to one local leader of the governing "chapter" responsible for running services, his entire community of 1,200 people received about $250,000 per year in royalties from the coal mining operation on their land. This community spent 50 years suffering from the toxic emissions spewing out of the coal-burning 1.2 gigawatt Navajo Generating Station nearby. This plant powered Los Angeles and points west — but not their own towns and settlements.

All they got was the pollution, and almost enough money to pay for the salary of one public health worker and overhead. An utter disgrace.

By contrast, Navajo Power’s solar projects will pay millions of dollars upfront and fair market value per year for the life of the project, while ensuring that the local community is compensated in addition to the central government. The solar plant will sit on the ground, leave resources in the ground, burn nothing and can be removed afterwards. The chapter can invest the revenue generated by this plant in public health, workforce development, job creation efforts such as ecotourism and high-value agriculture.

Business unusual

Solar is a strategy that will uplift this community. But unlike the similar promise of coal, solar power will not desecrate the Navajo’s sacred land, pollute their skies or poison their children. And the Navajo Power deal ensures this power will be owned and controlled by Navajo, not outsiders. 

It was not only a coup to pull off any investment of this magnitude in the midst of the COVID crisis — there’s more business unusual in the deal. Baked into the financial structure is an expected rate of return for the investors. If and when this rate is achieved, any further returns will be distributed to the communities hosting the solar projects on their land. This financing design, with a "mission delta" built-in between the concessionary rate that investors are taking and a more market rate, will become an innovative benchmark for similarly well-intentioned companies in the future.

Additional covenants include 10 percent of company ownership being held in a Turquoise Share, which funds community benefits in the event of profit distributions or sale of the company. Eighty percent of the profits must go toward solar projects or community investments. And executive compensation is capped relative to the lowest-paid employee. 

Morgan Simon, CEO of the Candide Group, explained, "Navajo Power is creating a new kind of economic development model for communities through leveraging the revenues of utility-scale clean energy development. That’s what drew us to their work and why we led this investment." This model is a stark contrast to the hundreds of years of exploitative fossil-fuel ventures that have taken place on the territories of native peoples. 

Navajo Power, as you probably can tell, is not a typical company. It is a registered Public Benefit Corporation; a company with a core goal of public benefits on par with profit maximization. And for the power sector, it is innovative from woe to go. It is mostly owned by Navajo and committed, by its mission and business model, to maximize benefits for the community partners hosting the solar projects on their land. The company provides culturally appropriate technical assistance to communities as they go through the development process. 

The backstory

The political and historical context surrounding this momentous deal is worth understanding. During Donald Trump’s reign, U.S. coal plants have closed faster than during the Obama administration. We can thank the markets for coal’s loss of steam; wind in the Midwest and solar in the Southwest can produce cheaper electricity.

This phenomenon has reached the reservation. After decades of hosting some of the nation’s largest coal mines and coal-fired power plants, including the Navajo Generating Station, San Juan, Cholla and the Four Corners Plant, these plants are finished.

The first to fall, Navajo Generating Station, closed in November after a last-ditch effort by the Trump administration to "save it" with subsidies. Early this year, the San Juan plant on the New Mexico side of Navajo announced it will shutter within three years. Cholla will stop one of three units this year and the rest by 2025. And Arizona Public Service, which operates Four Corners, recently announced it is moving up the retirement of that facility to 2031. Given the increasing loss-making economics, my bet is 2031 is a longshot.

The Navajo entrepreneurs saw the vacuum left by falling coal plants as an opportunity for themselves, their reservation and the broader United States. The key insight is that the coal operations built on their land give the Navajo exceptional access to regional energy markets through the high-voltage transmission lines connecting them to major electrical demand centers across the West. 

Based on research, Navajo Nation has the potential for more than 10 GW of solar power — more than a one-to-one replacement for every lost megawatt of coal power — plus at least one gigawatt of wind. Their high altitude, blue skies and dry land base is ideal for hosting solar farms. It also could prove an ideal location for hosting long-duration batteries for grid services that provide reliability and resilience. Research and development on solutions such as hydrogen gas from electrolysis powered by inexpensive solar is another potential product of this endeavor.

The Navajo are riding the perfect storm: better economics; natural and unnatural competitive advantages; and the disruption of energy technologies to position this previously overlooked community at the center of the U.S. energy future.

A change of heart

In March 2019, Navajo Power organized an Energy Roundtable that involved Navajo leadership and some big hitters in energy from the American West. These included David Hochschild, chair of the California Energy Commission, and Angelina Galiteva, a member of the Board of Governors of the California Independent System Operator, which runs the California electricity grid.

California is the fifth-largest economy in the world. So, when the governor’s energy czar and manager of the grid were present at the roundtable, people listened. And they both had the same message: We won’t buy dirty power from Navajo.

The previous year, California passed SB100, a law that requires the Golden State to be 100 percent powered with renewable electricity by 2045. California is a huge market, a kind of nation-state unto itself, with a distinct grid and an increasingly wealthy population of 40 million. When California adopted the 100 percent standard, other states followed suit.

This included New Mexico, which has a long history with the neighboring Navajo Nation dating to colonial times. These energy players surrounded the nation — both figuratively and geographically — with 100 percent clean energy commitments.

The conversation at the roundtable was focused on how none of these states wanted to buy coal-fired power for much longer. After 50 years of being forced by various means to allow coal extraction and combustion on its territory, the Navajo leadership was told that the world is going in a new direction. For the Resource Committee that was gathered, including Vice President Myron Lizer, this was news.

But it was heard. It was hard to ignore Navajo’s biggest customer of coal power for last half century saying, "We won’t be allowed, by law, to buy it any longer." 

Showdown at the summit

Galiteva had run procurement for the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power earlier in her career, so she knew all about contracting with Navajo power producers. She was well-versed on the transmission systems that carried electricity across the high desert and Sierras into the L.A. basin. There’s an interconnect at Glendale, just east of the city, a point in the grid where high-voltage transmission cables connect and the juice from big power plants is broken up before being distributed through the massive urban sprawl that is Los Angeles. Galiteva agreed that Navajo could take advantage of that transmission capacity — a huge multibillion-dollar sunk cost — to sell solar power for the next century.

The Navajo’s competitive advantage of using transmission lines paid for by the coal industry to connect clean energy generation on their land to the big cities might be fleeting.

Other carrots were offered in the room for the Navajo leadership to consider shifting from coal to solar. One came in the form of an energy procurement manager from Apple; the most valuable company in history at that time that recently had committed to 100 percent clean energy. While he could not commit to a specific contract with Navajo on the company’s behalf, he did indicate Apple’s interest in new sources of clean power.

In the last few years, data centers such as those run by Apple, Google and Facebook have emerged as core business for energy generators with direct electricity contracts. If the Renewable Energy Buyers Alliance, a group of several dozen large corporations, were a country, it would be in the top 10 in terms of energy consumption and commitment to 100 percent clean energy purchasing. The signal was clear for the folks in the room — the times were a-changing and the Navajo needed to get with the program.

The Navajo’s competitive advantage of using transmission lines paid for by the coal industry to connect clean energy generation on their land to the big cities might be fleeting. Developers elsewhere across the West are proposing massive wind and solar farms with transmission. These were big decisions and directional choices proposed to the committee at the summit.

None of which had an easy solution because, at the same time the summit was happening, on the Arizona side of the reservation, lobbyists in Window Rock were trying to convince the president to use sovereign wealth funds to bail out the coal-fired Navajo Generating Station. The owners and major off-takers had proposed to shut it down that summer, which would mean hundreds of jobs going off the reservation — a place with few good, consistent employment opportunities. 

At the time of the Navajo Power Summit, the nation was under considerable pressure to buy out the owners of the Navajo Generating Station to keep it going — even if It meant funding a loss-making enterprise. Various excuses and initiatives were announced to justify the nation's digging into a hard-won, rainy-day fund it maintains from fines settled by the federal government for damage caused by uranium mine tailings on their land.

The new president, Jonathan Nez, elected in November 2018, was looking down the barrel of 700 jobs going away at NGS and seriously considered spending $300 million to keep the coal power plant running. The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis advised Nez that this may keep the plant going for a couple of years, but nothing could turn the tide against coal in the West with all neighboring states committing to 100 percent renewables in the foreseeable future. In other words, it would be buying a white elephant.

In an act of bold political leadership, Nez decided against bailing out the coal plant. The nation broadened its vision. It saw that building large-scale solar farms with companies such as Navajo Power would tap the existing transmission lines to big cities and address the thousands of families on the reservation who do not have electricity.

In a proclamation made in April 2019, called the Navajo Háyoołkááł , the parties created "a new economic vision for the Navajo People, through healing the land, fostering clean energy development and providing leadership for the energy market."

This is "a big move for the nation," said Nez.

The plan is based on four principles: 

1. A diverse energy portfolio, creating workforce development and job creation opportunities for the Navajo people. 

2. Restoration of land and water after decades of uranium and coal mining. 

3. Rural electrification of homes that lack access to electricity.

4. Utility-scale renewable energy development to supply Navajo Nation and the western United States. 

The Navajo Sunrise Proclamation says, "Through the Diné teaching of ‘T’áá hwó’ ajít’éego’ and for the many who have called upon our Nation’s leaders to transition away from our overdependence on fossil fuels, the Navajo Nation will strive for a balanced energy portfolio and will pursue and prioritize clean renewable energy development for the long-term benefit of the Navajo People and our communities."

The benefits of such investments will go beyond jobs and revenue for the Navajo. There is a sense of pride in picking the path rather than having it foisted upon them, as coal power was 50 years ago. Self-determination is a big issue for indigenous peoples the world over. Overcoming the colonial domination that energy development has created is a major triumphsof the Navajo Sunrise Proclamation.

It brings hope, not just to this sovereign nation, but to people everywhere that just transitions can be made.

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