All across the United States, there are communities built around power sources of the past. While the need to transition to clean energy is clear, the future of these communities is often more complicated.
We can see these complexities right now as the Navajo Nation grapples with the closure of the Navajo Generating Station (NGS), a coal-fired power plant located on the Navajo Indian land near some of our country's most treasured natural resources. NGS has been in operation since 1974, near Page, Arizona with the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation as its largest single owner.
The NGS was largest coal-fired power plant in the West and also the largest source of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) air pollution in the United States. Emissions from the plant affected visibility at 11 National Parks and Wilderness Areas and contributed to ozone and fine particle pollution in the region. This pollution severely impacted the health of families on Navajo and Hopi lands and the areas around them. While it was the largest source of air pollution, it was also an essential source of employment. With unemployment around 19 percent on Navajo lands, the Hopi and Navajo tribes have depended on coal revenue to fund their governments. The Navajo Nation needs to seek transition assistance similar to packages from coal plant closures in other parts of the west, which include funding and technical assistance for impacted communities and their workers. Emergency federal legislation is needed to support tribal revenue and economic diversification
“We are way behind in our planning for what comes next because so much time has been spent trying to keep Navajo Generating Station and Kayenta Mine running,” said Nicole Horseherder, Executive Director, Tó Nizhóní Ání. “It’s time for us to come together and work cooperatively on building a clean energy economy that benefits all Navajo. There’s much hard work ahead to create this transition, but with the leadership shown by the new Navajo Council and our new president, we have a bright future in front of us.”
NGS is shutting down, some six weeks earlier than projected, because coal is more expensive than renewable resources. Wind and solar are abundant and cost a fraction of what coal does. Solar and wind energy are already the cheaper sources of electricity generation in more than two-thirds of the country.
“This is an important time to remember that vast resources were once spent to install coal operations on Navajo Nation, and that vast wealth and benefit was extracted for decades over the heads of so many Navajo communities,” said Percy Deal, former Navajo Council member and former Navajo County Supervisor. “Remembering this past shows the path ahead: full corporate responsibility for affected coal workers, full restoration of damaged land and water, and full commitment now from utilities to be customers for clean energy resources from Navajo land in ways that benefit Navajo people.”
Transitioning away from dirty coal-fired power plants is occurring far beyond NGS, especially in the Southwest. There are four other coal plants set to retire in the next 2 to 12 years located near the Nation. Navajo Nation also owns about 10% of the Four Corners Plant in Fruitland, New Mexico which is scheduled to close in 2031.
“It’s been known for a long time that coal isn’t the future, but this final certainty is crucial,” said Lori Goodman, Diné CARE. “For anyone who’s been hesitant about moving strongly for renewable energy development, for building our economy in ways that will benefit our communities and our Mother Earth and Father Sky, now there is no reason or excuse to hold back. This moment is why our new council and president were elected. The legacy they will leave for the transition from coal starts now.”