Navajo Nation solar project will cement San Juan County’s position as exporter of renewable energy

The remote county in southeastern Utah has seen its share of oil and uranium booms. Will wind, solar and pump-hydro be next?

(Courtesy of the Navajo Nation Office of the President and Vice President) Navajo Tribal Utility Authority officials and Miss Navajo Nation Shaandiin Parrish look on as Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez signs the lease agreement for the Red Mesa Tapaha Solar Generation Plant in Red Mesa, Ariz., on April 7, 2020. He was joined by Council Delegate Charlaine Tso (bottom, right) and Red Mesa Chapter officials, including Red Mesa Chapter Vice President Marilyn Holly (bottom, left) and President Herman Farley (bottom, second from left).

Bluff • Utah’s sprawling, rural San Juan County has survived as an export economy since Texas and Colorado cattle companies fattened hundreds of thousands of livestock in its canyons in the 1890s before driving them north to the railroad near Green River.

Half a century later, the vanadium and uranium booms led to the construction of thousands of miles of roads throughout the county to transport the radioactive ore from mines and mills to government weapons facilities in New Mexico and elsewhere. And the discovery of Utah’s Aneth Oil Field on the northern Navajo Nation in 1956 kicked off a frenzy of drilling that produced more crude oil than any other reserve in the state.

But now, as the uranium mines sit idle and the oil industry’s heyday has long passed, a new resource is emerging that soon could become the county’s leading export: renewable energy.

In 2016, Utah’s largest wind farm at the time was completed near Monticello. The $125 million, 60-megawatt Latigo Wind Park takes advantage of the frequent gusts that blow off the farmlands in southwestern Colorado toward the Abajo Mountains. On a breezy day, the facility is capable of producing more power than is consumed by the entire county of 15,500 residents.

Earlier this month, Navajo Nation officials signed leases for a new 600-acre, 70-megawatt solar project in far southern Utah near Red Mesa that will help power cities across Utah and generate revenue for the tribal government.

“Our communities were once heavily dependent on fossil fuel energy, but now we are seeing change happen,” said Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez. “[The Red Mesa solar farm] is another milestone for the Navajo Nation as we continue to transition to clean, emissions-free renewable energy for our communities and in the open market.”

The vast majority of power from the Monticello wind farm and the Navajo solar project — like the beef, uranium and oil produced in the region — is destined for use beyond the county line, and the industrial-scale renewable projects, while significant, barely touch the potential for carbon-free energy in southeastern Utah.

A far more massive proposed project, the $3.6 billion Navajo Energy Storage Station, is slowly advancing through the regulatory process. It would tap solar power to pump water uphill from Lake Powell to a small, nearby reservoir. The water would in turn run through hydroelectric turbines back into larger as an on-demand source of power, even when the sun isn’t shining.

(Graphic by Christopher Cherrington)

If approved and constructed, the latter project — which wouldn’t permanently divert water from the Colorado River like the controversial Lake Powell pipeline — would be capable of producing more power than all the wind and solar projects currently operating in Utah combined. The Navajo Energy Storage Station would be designed to turn out a whopping 2,100 megawatts of power, nearly twice the capacity of the Glen Canyon Dam and an output on par with the recently demolished Navajo Generating Station near Page, Ariz., which was the largest coal-fired plant in the West.

Renewables provide a new source of revenue

While the top property taxpayers in San Juan County remain oil, gas and pipeline companies, the Latigo Wind Park produced $2.2 million in taxes for the county in its first two years, which led to an annual tax reduction of around $100 for every county property owner with a home valued at $150,000. But the taxable value of the wind farm has depreciated quickly and will continue to do so over its 20-year life span, producing less tax revenue every year it operates.

(Brian Maffly | Tribune file photo) Latigo Wind Park, a 27-turbine power-generating project outside Monticello went on line in 2016. The 62-megawatt project provides electricity to Rocky Mountain Power.

Even more of the revenue from the newly approved Red Mesa Tapaha Solar Generation Plant is expected to flow back into communities in both tax revenue to the Navajo Nation and in the form of residential water and power projects on the Utah Navajo strip, where hundreds of residents lack basic utilities.

The project will be majority owned by the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority (NTUA), and a similar solar farm built just south of the Utah line near Kayenta, Ariz., several years ago is projected to send nearly $8 million to the Navajo Nation over its lifetime, according to NTUA.

Navajo Tribal Council Delegate Charlaine Tso, whose district includes the Red Mesa Chapter in southeastern San Juan County, said the project will also provide critical employment opportunities in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

“With this pandemic, a lot of our constituents have been out of work — a lot are on furlough, a lot [have been] laid off,” she said. “The unemployment rate reached nearly 50%.”

Construction will begin this summer, and it is expected to provide $6 million in wages for more than 200 employees, according to Nez’s office. A hiring priority will be given to local tribal members, and NTUA said 90% of workers who built the Kayenta project were members of the Navajo Nation hired through area job fairs.

The construction work will also provide skills training, Tso said. “The best part about this project within NTUA is that not only does it provide income, but in many cases with these employees, it’s extended into a long-term position with NTUA. … It’s the start of a career opportunity for many.”

(Leah Hogsten | Tribune file photo) Marilyn Holly, Navajo Nation Red Mesa Chapter vice president and advocate for clean air, water and soil, poses in front of an Elk Petroleum oil pump jack not far from her home in Montezuma Creek, June 24, 2020.

“A lot of our young adults don’t have jobs right now,” said Red Mesa Chapter Vice President Marilyn Holly, who lives atop the Aneth Oil Field and adjacent to an area contaminated by multiple oil spills over decades of drilling activity. While oil and gas remain the dominant local employer, Holly said the solar project represents an important step forward for the region.

“It’s a good thing,” she said, noting that NTUA pledged to use some of the revenue from the project to keep utility bills low for Navajo customers. “We’re trying to move into the future by having these kinds of [carbon]-saving energy projects.”

Where the solar power will go

Four megawatts of power produced in Red Mesa will go to communities served by NTUA, and the remaining 66 megawatts will be purchased by 16 member cities of Utah Associated Municipal Power Systems (UAMPS), ranging from 142 kilowatts for Fairview to more than 18,000 kilowatts for St. George.

“This is a win-win project for UAMPS and NTUA customers,” NTUA General Manager Walter Haase said in a statement when the deal was announced last year. “UAMPS will have another low-cost clean energy product and NTUA will be able to extend electricity to families who have been living without for many, many years.”

Industrial-scale renewable projects have plummeted in price during the past decade. A 2019 report found that wind energy prices fell 70% between 2009 and 2019, and solar photovoltaics have plunged by 89% on average. The lower costs of renewable construction allows utility providers like UAMPS to diversify their power sources with more carbon-free electricity, while buying the solar power at competitive prices.

UAMPS will purchase power from Red Mesa at the rate of $23.15 per megawatt hour plus 2% per year, a rate below the average cost of power from existing nuclear, coal and natural gas plants.

The abundant sunshine in San Juan County has attracted the interest of other solar developers as well. Last year, the Community Energy Solar LLC, which has offices in Colorado and Pennsylvania, leased nearly 1,000 acres of state trust lands just north of Bluff for a potential solar project despite opposition from the Bluff Town Council. The lease will remain active for 35 years. It’s unclear how quickly the company will move to develop the area, which could host a farm as large as the one in Red Mesa. Community Energy Solar did not respond to a request for comment.

Even with dropping prices for solar panels and wind turbines, only 2.1% of power produced in Utah last year came from wind and solar, according to American Clean Power. But once the Red Mesa solar farm is completed, San Juan County will be producing roughly 8% of the state’s current renewable power output from the Latigo and Red Mesa projects alone.

Could San Juan County be home to the country’s largest pump-hydro plant?

On a cool December morning last year, the three 775-foot concrete smokestacks of the Navajo Generating Station near Page were demolished, marking the end of a major source of local employment — and a perpetual source of environmental concerns — along the Utah-Arizona border on the Navajo Nation.

For 45 years, power from the coal-fired plant was sent to cities across the Southwest, and the plant provided 750 jobs to mostly Native American workers. The transmission lines remain in place, however, and Nez said last year the tribe is exploring ways to use them by building renewable projects nearby.

One such proposal, which has yet to be endorsed by the Navajo Nation government, is the Navajo Energy Storage Station near Lake Powell.

Jim Day, CEO of Daybreak Power, said his company picked the site for the proposed project — a remote canyon near Navajo Mountain — based on a study conducted by the Interior Department under then-President Barack Obama in 2014, which analyzed prime locations for pump-hydro storage throughout the country.

(Zak Podmore | Tribune file photo) The smokestacks on the Navajo Generating Station come down Dec. 18, 2020.

“I’m deeply concerned about climate change,” Day said, “and cutting greenhouse gas emissions and facilitating a transition to a clean energy economy.”

Renewable energy production contributes far less greenhouse gas emissions than fossil fuel-powered plants, but sunshine and wind are inconsistent. Pump-hydro seeks to address that problem by using solar power to run a looped hydroelectric system that could provide power at any time of the day or night by essentially functioning as a giant battery.

The project would likely be built alongside a massive solar farm, but the size of the system has yet to be determined, said Day, who is in early negotiations with the Navajo Nation. “I hope [the tribe] will want to come on as a full partner,” he said. “That’s what I’ve proposed.”

Pump-hydro systems on a similar scale are being built in China and India, Day added, but the Navajo project would be much larger than anything currently under consideration in the United States.

The earliest the project would be completed would be in 2030, and that involves an alignment of funding, engineering and permitting needs.

“We are going to start working through the various studies that we need to do to prove out the technical and commercial regulatory viability of this project,” Day said. “And if everything is looking good, probably about two years from now, we will file for the full license.”

For Holly, the chapter official in Red Mesa, the smaller solar plant that will see construction this summer in her chapter is a good first step for the region long dependent on nonrenewable resource extraction.

“Pretty soon,” she said, “we could maybe even have a place to plug in our cars.”

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today by clicking here.