Thought Leader Series: Tribal Nations pave a path to renewables | The Optimist Daily
Today’s Solutions: July 15, 2024

Last year, we shared a story about Native Renewables, a female-led company providing renewable energy to the Navajo Nation with small-scale, independent, solar grids. Initiatives like this have been instrumental in both electrifying and providing economic prosperity for Native American communities. 

Paul Hirt, Professor of History and Sustainability Arizona State University, and Roger Sorkin, Founder and Executive Director American Resilience Project explain how these programs serve as an example for other communities and how utility partnerships could expand the reach of these programs.

For the last 50 years, a significant portion of the Navajo and Hopi Nations’ income came from coal leases on their lands such as the Navajo Generating Station (NGS) and Kayenta coal mine. Now, as we transition to renewables, this income is drying up. Renewables startups are slowly taking its place, but outside investment would significantly scale up their profitability and reliability. 

Salt River Project (SRP) and Arizona Public Service are stepping up to aid in this transition. SRP has offered to provide retraining and relocation assistance to NGS employees and both are offering educational and economic development assistance to Native American communities looking to expand their renewables infrastructure. The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation also donated its ownership of 500 megawatts of NGS transmission capacity to the Navajo Nation to scale up their solar operations and take their surplus energy to market. 

Hirt and Sorkin argue that this transition taking place within Native American communities should be a lesson for the greater United States as well. They point out that there are already more jobs in wind and solar than in fossil fuel-based electrical generation, yet clinging to old technology has slowed the transition to green power. 

They also encourage unions and trade associations to invest in renewables training and support the transition. They write, “To successfully adapt during this time of rapid change, business leaders must boldly experiment and innovate, embrace — not resist — change, and think broadly about the human dimensions of the energy transition rather than focusing just on technology and markets.”

Facing the decline of coal and an unemployment rate of 42 percent in the Navajo Nation, these communities have pivoted to embrace renewable energy as a job source and climate change fighting tool of the future. The localized nature of solar grids also empowers these communities to take charge of their own power after being exploited for coal resources for so long. 

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