Tuesday, May 30, 2023

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Guest Column: NTUA responds to claim of NTUA failure to get community consent

The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority would like to respond to the column written by Jessica Keetso, a member of the To’Nizhoni’Ani organization, and published in the July 8, 2021, Navajo Times.

We thank Keetso for providing comments, but we believe it is necessary to respond and clarify some of her points.

Keetso indicated she was listening to the May 6, 2021, online community forum NTUA hosted with the Cameron community to provide information regarding the proposed Cameron Solar Facility. We, the undersigned, represented NTUA during that forum.

In her column, Keetso erroneously claims that, “based on the community forum in Cameron, it seems NTUA forgot to checkmark ‘community engagement’ off their checklist.” This statement is untrue.

From the beginning of this project, NTUA has followed Navajo Nation procedures for community consent. The Cameron Solar Project was presented before the Community Land Use Planning Committee, then to a planning meeting and onto a chapter meeting whereby a resolution was passed on July 11, 2018, supporting the development, construction and operation of a solar generation plant in the Cameron chapter community (Cameron Chapter resolution).

At the time, NTUA advised the chapter that follow-up information would be provided after the land use/clearance approval phase. Following the passage of the Cameron Chapter resolution, the project required rights of way and other mandatory prerequisites, such as environmental clearance.

Sharing with community

NTUA shared with the community that this is a lengthy process and an update on the project would be provided after those preconditions were completed, including land lease approval by the Navajo Nation.

As the project continued through the tribal/federal review and approval process, the COVID-19 pandemic moved onto the Navajo Nation. The Nation, including federal and tribal government offices, were placed on complete shutdown and our people were required to safely shelter at home.

As it was for everyone, the Navajo Nation’s priority and focus were on preventing the spread of COVID-19, and communication with the Cameron Chapter was limited.

As the Dec. 30, 2020, the deadline for CARES Act projects loomed, NTUA made contact with the incoming Cameron Chapter leadership to provide information about the project.
The Cameron solar lease packet was approved by the Resources and Development Committee of the Navajo Nation on March 31, 2021, and the Cameron solar lease was signed by the President Jonathan Nez on April 6.

The land permitting process was the next stage of the project and we wanted to share this update with the new community leaders.

As the Navajo Nation and the United States began to get a better handle on COVID-19, NTUA scheduled an online community forum for May 6. In the online Zoom session update, we provided a project overview and details about how the project can provide utility infrastructure development that so many residents have been without for decades. Chapter leaders understood the long-term plan and submitted a letter of support.

Since that initial meeting, NTUA has held several update sessions with chapter leadership. As requested, the same information was again provided to the community. We preferred a face-to-face meeting and waited to see if COVID-19 restrictions might be lifted. When it was clear that public meeting restrictions would remain in place, an on-line forum was scheduled.

History of renewable energy

Information presented during the online forum included the history of NTUA’s renewable energy development. It featured Kayenta Solar Project, which is the first 55-megawatt utility scale facility owned by a Native tribe.

We talked about how many jobs the facility brought to the area in two phases, about the economic boost to the area, and how utility infrastructure – water and electricity – was extended to local homes.

We did our best to express this verbally, knowing there could be some callers that did not have access to Zoom technology. We followed the COVID-19 safety requirements that were implemented by the chapter for the safety of the community. We don’t believe we treated Cameron residents with indifference, and we apologize if people felt we did.

As we explained to Cameron, this project will allow for community utility development. Once the facility is built, NTUA will extend electric utility lines to residents in the area, which opens the door for water lines and broadband/internet expansion.

This will make a monumental difference in Cameron, which for years has been served by the neighboring Arizona Public Service company.

We further explained that the lease is for approximately 1,110 acres for Phase I. Should the project expand, we could build on the remaining acreage. We are developing Phase I and should there be a Phase II, the land will have already been withdrawn.

We gave a general location of the site. We have met the grazing permit holder and the family. The entire scope of the project was explained. They requested confidentiality. We will respect their request.

In addition, NTUA did not circumvent any land-use requirements and NTUA has obtained grazing consents for all grazing permit holders within the location of the project. NTUA has met with the grazing permittees on several occasions and will continue to meet with them throughout the life of the project.

NTUA adhered to the tribal/federal project authorization process, including rights-of-way acquisition, environmental clearance, community approval process, and step-by-step tribal review and authorization.

Community benefits

As for community benefits, NTUA has established a renewable energy platform to help local communities prosper by creating a new energy workforce to increase job opportunities, providing specialized solar training for the Navajo people, and promoting the expenditure of dollars in local communities (including hotels, food, arts and crafts vendors, and local services).

We recognize the need for increased communication and have been working on developing a new website to provide more information about NTUA’s large-scale renewable energy program.
NTUA has not had an electric rate increase in 13 years. Solar facility development, like the one proposed for Cameron, help keep electric rates stable.

The project also further alleviates the Navajo Nation’s reliance on dirty fossil fuels by diversifying the energy portfolio and promoting additional sustainable energy generation.
The project also provides much needed funding to help with the electric connection to the homes of families. As part of the Cameron Solar Project, a new substation will be built and additional infrastructure will be constructed in the area.

With the new substation, Navajo homes can now be connected directly from the new substation. NTUA’s goal is to use the infrastructure buildout for the Cameron Solar Project to connect more Navajo homes with utilities services.

Our standard has always been to meet with communities, share development plans, and to seek community consent.

In conclusion, we started this journey into the world of renewable energy generation. The Kayenta Solar facility has placed the Navajo Nation as a leader in Indian Country with respect to renewable energy generation.

This is a huge step forward – it’s the first time in Navajo history that the Navajo people are owners through NTUA of an energy generation facility operating on our traditional homeland.

We are proud of this development because it exemplifies the long-term vision of Navajo leaders when they created NTUA in 1959. We are fortunate that our current leaders have expanded upon the 1959 vision and have allowed us, as a tribal entity, to move forward to meet the needs of the people.

Thank you and ahee’hee’ – NTUA legal counsel Arash Moalemi, NTUA government/public affairs manager Deenise Becenti, and NTUA consumer relations specialist Larry Jackson, Jr.


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