LOS ANGELES – In a city renowned for its green policies, Prius drivers and biodegradable straws, it was only a matter of time before officials would vote to move away from coal powered electricity.
To transition to clean energy, the city sold its shares of a coal-powered generating station on the Navajo Nation in 2016, ending a decades-long relationship.
What seemed like a bright new sustainable future for Los Angeles presented a harsh reality for the tribe, whose members relied on jobs at the Navajo Generating Station, which shut down completely in November. The generating station near Page contributed $51 million a year to northern Arizona and southern Utah.
Last month, the Los Angeles City Council voted to explore ways to continue that energy partnership without funding a generating station that once was the third largest carbon emitter in the U.S. If deemed feasible after a 30-day evaluation, renewable energy soon will travel from the reservation to Southern California. The motion was passed and finalized by Mayor Eric Garcetti.
“We’re talking about solar energy, wind energy, in other words, completely transitioning from coal into renewable resources,” said Mitch O’Farrell, the City Council member who presented the motion. O’Farrell, who is the first member of the council to belong to a federally recognized tribe – the Wyandotte Nation – said he wore a beaded bolo tie for the occasion.
Los Angeles needs other sources of renewable energy to reach the goals outlined in the 2019 Green New Deal, which aims to make the city 55% dependent on renewable energy by 2025 and fully dependent on renewables by 2045, O’Farrell said.
His proposal also acknowledges the economic hardship the Navajo Nation faces with the closure of the generating station, where 90% of the 433 employees were Navajo. The generating station officially closed on Nov. 18, which also negatively affected coal-mining operations on the reservation.
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, who attended the LA council meeting approving the proposal, hopes it will compensate for an estimated $30-50 million revenue loss for the tribe.
“We are resilient people,” Nez told the council. “We want to be the leaders in renewable energy in Indian Country.”
The continued partnership would bring wind and solar powered energy to Los Angeles while fostering economic development for the Navajo Nation, the motion states.
“This is a win-win for everyone,” Nez said.
Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and members of his administration traveled to Los Angeles to push for continued energy partnerships with the city. “We want to be the leaders in renewable energy in Indian Country,” he told the City Council. (Photo by Sarah Donahue/Cronkite News)
The council’s unanimous vote started the process of a 30-day feasibility study by Los Angeles’ Department of Water and Power that will evaluate potential costs and benefits for electricity ratepayers.
It’s likely to be cost-effective for Angelenos, O’Farrell said, as LA’s Department of Water and Power still has ownership of the transmission lines linking the reservation and the city.
“The idea is to continue that partnership, but it would be directly between the Navajo Nation and LA for the continued use of those lines,” said Nicole Horseherder, executive director of Tó Nizhóní Ání’, a grassroots organization that advocates for environmental protections and responsible use of natural resources of the Black Mesa area on the reservation.
“The only difference would be that it would be Navajo renewable energy power that would be put on those transmission lines,” she said.
The Navajo Generating Station
The 2,250-megawatt Navajo Generating Station a few miles east of Page began producing electricity in the 1970s. Its owners ended operations in November because the plant was deemed no longer economically viable.
The generating station and the Kayenta Mine that fed it coal contributed nearly $1.3 billion to the Navajo and Hopi economies since 1987, according to data from Coconino County.
The mine, which is adjacent to Hopi and Navajo land in northeastern Arizona, and the generating station were part of a “mine-to-mouth” operation. The coal traveled from the mine to the generating station 78 miles away via train to produce power for California, Arizona and Nevada.
Without the need for coal, the mine closed, too, as the generating station was its only customer.
The costly nature of coal led to the plant’s closure, according to Scott Harelson, spokesman for the Salt River Project, one of Arizona’s biggest utility companies. SRP has partial ownership of the generating station along with Tucson Electric Power and NV Energy.
LA’s Department of Water and Power had been a shareholder until it sold its 21.2% ownership to SRP in July 2016 to move toward clean energy.
In 2017, all the utility owners voted to shut down the generating station.