~ Written by Mary Tongel ~
Navajo Nation is resilient. Approximately 32 percent of all homes located in Navajo Nation lack electricity. 31 percent lack indoor plumbing, 86 percent lack natural gas, and 60 percent lack telephone services. While Navajo Nation is the site of three large coal-fired power plants, many homes in the Territory do not have access to the energy created by those coal-burning power plants. Increased access to improved solar technology, however, could bring electricity on the territory who have none, creating a higher standard of living. Clean energy, along with local ingenuity, brings the hope that Navajo Nation may begin to heal its wounds from nearly a century of intense natural resource exploitation.
Mining companies exploited Navajo Nation’s resources for decades. From 1944 through 1986, companies extracted over 4 million tons of uranium from Navajo Nation, later abandoning almost 500 mines. Over a quarter of Navajo Nation residents have traceable levels of uranium in their bodies, as opposed to a 5% national average. This long-term exposure to radiation has led to heightened rates of kidney failure and cancer in the Territory.
Coal fired power plants also contribute to health problems in the area. The Four Corners Power Plant emitted toxic mercury into the air and coal runoff into the water, causing respiratory problems and contributing to the clean water shortage in the area. The EPA filed suit against the company, which eventually settled in 2015.
Exposure to uranium, as well as excessive coal dust and mercury from mining operations has led to astronomical levels of cancer, respiratory illnesses, and kidney failure in the Territory.
The history of resource exploitation on Navajo lands is grim, but there is hope, particularly in the form of distributed solar. Increasing access to solar energy, many tribes are using distributed, renewable energy to provide clean affordable energy to the region.
One example of this is the Four Corners Power plant. The plant was partially shut down in Spring 2017, and is set to close by December 2019.Two more stacks are also set to close by the end of 2017. Two other coal-fired power plants in the region are likely to close within the next five years, despite President Trump’s continued promises to revive the coal industry.
Coal industry workers in the area fear job loss, but the solar power industry is quickly on the rise. The Kayenta Solar Facility went online this year and already has the capacity to bring electricity to 13,000 of 18,000 Navajo homes. Construction of the project employed several hundred members of Navajo nation. Many homes that were previously without electricity have benefited from government grants as well, making it possible for them to power their homes with their own solar panels.
Navajo youth have also taken part in advancing solar technology for their tribe. Navajo teen inventor Kelly Charley created a solar heater for homes in the Nation. Most Navajo homes are heated using coal burning stoves, which increases the chance of respiratory illnesses. Charley’s invention is cheap and easy to use because she designed it with her grandparents and other tribal elders in mind.