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Transitioning to culturally appropriate renewable energy development

America’s unquenchable thirst for power to light, heat, and cool our homes and businesses has created myriad problems. No group has suffered more from power plant air pollution, uranium tailing radioactivity, coal mine acid drainage, and lands lost to flooding by hydroelectric dams than Native Americans. Yet, ironically, many tribal lands have no electrical service for their inhabitants.

On the Navajo Nation, over 18,000 homes lack electricity. There are few local providers of renewable energy systems and few incentives to develop such systems on reservation lands. In the Shonto Chapter area alone, over 100 households lack electricity. Furthermore, it is cost-prohibitive to run power to outlying homesteads, which Navajos build to facilitate growing food. This is the case with Chapters throughout the western Navajo Nation.

Renewable energy, which relies on the natural flows of wind, water, sun, and the earth’s heat to produce power, aligns Hopi and Navajo values and is the obvious solution to historical problems with energy production. It offers a chance for the Hopi and Navajo to control their energy needs and resources in a way that conforms to their cultures and offers hope for not repeating past mistakes.

The Trust has worked with tribes on renewable energy since 2006 to help diversify their economies.  Early work involved educating communities, tribal leaders, and executives about the economic and environmental benefits of renewable energy. We have also helped tribes think through ownership options and decide the best strategy for two utility-scale wind energy projects — one of which, the Aubrey Cliffs wind project, has secured a Power Purchase Agreement. At the same time, we have made progress with the creation of a community-owned solar retail and installation company, Shaa’tohi’ (Shonto) Energy Solutions, which in the past year has installed many 15kw to 20kw home systems and entered the commercial-scale systems sector. We have also spent significant time advising the Navajo Nation on their energy policy to ensure that it offers avenues for community-driven, utility-scale, renewable energy development.

We continue to offer guidance to Shonto and other communities that want to build their local economies innovatively through larger scale renewable energy projects in partnership with the tribal government. These projects demonstrate how a community can put appropriate organizational structures in place and secure ownership.

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