Big new solar project planned for Eastern Navajo

By Alastair Lee Bitsoi
Navajo Times

FARMINGTON, Sept. 26, 2013

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P reliminary data collected by California-based Tetra Tech has determined that the Navajo Nation could help meet the energy demands of the future with a proposed 4,370-megawatt solar project at the Paragon Bisti Energy Renewable Ranch in the Eastern Navajo Agency.

"This project has a lot of potential," said Scott Prosuch, senior program manager for Tetra Tech, at a kickoff event here at the Farmington Civic Center on Tuesday. "We're committed to seeing this project through."

Prosuch added the proposed solar project has the potential for "world-class greatness," when 17,360 acres of the 22,000 acre ranch are producing 4,370 megawatts of energy from solar panels. The power produced by the project would nearly equal the entire new photovoltaic production in the U.S. this year, according to the U.S. Photovoltaic Installation Forecast of the Solar Energy Industries Association.

It is, by far, the largest renewable energy project currently being planned in the country, according to data supplied by Tetra Tech.

Tetra Tech is a leading provider of consulting, engineering and technical services worldwide.

The company also announced Phase II, the feasibility study, of the five-phase project. A U.S. Department of Energy grant is funding the feasibility study. The ranch, which is located near the Bisti Wilderness, was formerly owned by the Bureau of Land Management until the tribe acquired and conveyed it in 1996 under the Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act for the benefit of Navajo relocatees, said Raymond Maxx, executive director for the Navajo-Hopi Land Commission.

"With this and other projects, Navajos can help meet the energy demands with renewable energy that's produced on our lands," Maxx said. "This project is the right thing to do."

To get a better understanding of the site for the feasibility study, officials from Tetra Tech, including Prosuch, and their consultants, Blue Hawk Design and Rural Community Innovations, toured one of six sites currently identified for development on the ranch.

The tour also included officials from the Navajo-Hopi Land Commission, Eastern Navajo Land Commission, and chapter officials from Lake Valley and Tiis Tsoh Sikaad Chapters.

"We're going to look at the entire site and look at what's given for each site," Prosuch said. He added that the work conducted by Tetra Tech is "clean, sustainable and of course it benefits the relocatees." According to Robert Kennedy, a system engineer for Tetra Tech, the preliminary data collected from Phase I indicated the six sites not only have the potential for solar, but also for geothermal and wind energy development.

Phase I of the project included an analysis for renewable energy potential and the identification of possible transmission line connectivity, as well as the capacity of the project. Tetra Tech also identified possible export markets, rights-of-way, the environmental clearance and review process and the social and cultural issues of the proposed project.

By traveling to the site, Kennedy also said that Tetra Tech, Annette Blue of Blue Hawk Design, and Michael Utter, of Rural Community Innovations, got a clearer idea of the sites and other areas for possible development.

"You don't just go up there with jumper cables," he said, explaining that Site I is ideal for development because it's close to the Bisti 230-kilowatt substation, transmission line and on the right-of-way of U.S. Highway 371.

During the feasibility study of the project, which would determine its technical and economic viability, a survey of the entire site, and model lifestyle cost and benefits of the energy project would also be developed.

Also as part of their Paragon Bisti site visit, Emilie Johnson, principal environmental scientist and planner for Tetra Tech, said a broad environmental review of Site 1 would be conducted. She added the environmental assessment would not only follow environmental impact statement standards, but also the guidelines of the Navajo Nation Environmental Policy Act. Johnson is a former environmental manager for a Southern California Indian tribe.

The socioeconomic and vocational and technical opportunities of Phase II also including possible partnerships with Navajo Technical University in Crownpoint and job opportunities for members of the tribe.

"The market is going to be phenomenal," Blue said. Though there is no clear estimate of the number of jobs, she added, "There will be many, many jobs."

The market even says so, according to Utter, who explained that it's important to "find people that will buy energy" and "move energy to the marketplace."

Utter said that export markets for the project could expand into California (which is required by state law to have a renewable portfolio standard of 33 percent), New Mexico Public Service Company, Arizona Public Service, Tucson Electric Power and Tri-State Generation, among others.

He also said it's important for Tetra Tech to work with NTUA to connect to existing transmission lines for potential local markets. While listening to the presentation, Larry Rodgers, executive director for the Eastern Navajo Land Commission, didn't quite understand why the project was confined to the six sites that he called "scattered" throughout the ranch territory.

Instead of building on the six scattered sites, which also border other types of tribal territory, Rodgers recommended Tetra Tech to consider developing in a concentrated fashion. The concentration of development could be achieved by looking at other types of land bordering the ranch that belong to the tribe, including trust land and individual allotment, for greater energy development potential, he said.

"There are other lands the Nation can benefit from," Rodgers said, adding that since socially the project would impact Navajos from this region of the reservation, there should be some sort of benefit for them in place.

And to have a more positive impact, Rodgers added that it's imperative to involve Eastern Navajo.

Tiis Tsoh Sikaad Chapter President Lester Begay said that his constituents support the development and don't oppose the project benefiting Navajo relocatees of the Former Bennett Freeze, Nahata Dziil Chapter and Navajos living on Navajo Partitioned Lands and Hopi Partitioned Lands.

"For our community, we support this," Begay said. "I just want to make that known."

In response to Rodgers, Maxx reemphasized that the ranch was acquired through the Navajo-Hopi Land Settlement Act. The ranch land was identified in the first place to get any "types of revenue to help people affected by relocation," he noted.

As for Walter Phelps, chairman for the Navajo-Hopi Land Commission, the five-phase approach to the project and the opportunity for the tribe to transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy is promising.

"The groundwork has been laid out," Phelps said. "The benefits for this project are benefiting the Navajo relocatees."

Contact Alastair L. Bitsoi at 928-871-1141 or email at