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Navajo Nation Builds Momentum for Renewable Energy

The U.S. Southwest is ground zero in the effort to transition America to an energy portfolio of renewables. What are the first steps, and who is making them?
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There’s a Navajo saying: “When you walk into the future, you must walk in beauty.”

When it comes to energy, this is difficult to follow for the current generation of Navajo. Many of the dirtiest coal plants and uranium mines in the country are on Navajo Nation, polluting its land and water and causing health problems. Despite this, of the 300,000 enrolled Navajo tribal members, it is estimated that 18,000 of them don’t have electricity.

This past summer, Dreaming New Mexico and New Energy Economy, two energy-focused organizations at work in the Southwest, installed solar panels on the Crownpoint Chapter House. The building is a forum for local governance and one of the central meeting places of the surrounding Navajo community.

“The idea is that, not only does [the solar panel] have practical merit, but it has educational merit as well,” said Mariel Nanasi, executive director of New Energy Economy. It shows there is an alternative to fossil fuels. “It’s to expose vision to the community as well as the leaders.”

So far, the project has showed promise and a bit of momentum: another Navajo group, the Tohatchi, has signed a resolution to partner with the groups to install solar panels on its chapter house. Nanasi said five or six other chapter houses are interested as well, although there aren’t sufficient funds yet to construct the panels.

Putting solar panels on one building in one region of the Southwest may seem a small feat, especially for those who see the Southwest as ground zero in the effort to transition America to an energy portfolio largely, if not entirely, comprised of renewables. But as another saying goes, the longest journey starts with a single step.

In 2008, Ken Zweibel, James Mason and Vasilis Fthenakis published an article in Scientific American titled “A Solar Grand Plan.” It detailed the Southwest’s ability to provide for much of America’s electrical needs through solar power alone, and the region’s ability to provide for all of the United States’ energy needs through renewable energy sources if wind, biomass, and geothermal sources were developed.

All we need to do is fulfill the land’s potential.

“The energy in sunlight striking the earth for 40 minutes is equivalent to global energy consumption for a year,” the authors wrote. “The U.S. is lucky to be endowed with a vast resource; at least 250,000 square miles of land in the Southwest alone are suitable for constructing solar power plants.”

They cite studies by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory showing that more than enough land is available for solar panels without using any environmentally sensitive areas, population centers or difficult terrain. While not everyone shares their enthusiasm for large-scale solar, they visualize large tracts of land covered in solar panels, pumping power throughout the country.

The authors say that the greatest obstacle to implementing this comprehensive strategy is not money or technology, but a lack of public awareness that solar power is a practical alternative.

Dreaming New Mexico and New Energy Economy have taken those first steps to develop that kind of public awareness, collaborating with Google Earth Outreach to create what have become known as “future maps,” three-dimensional tours of Navajo Nation that help people visualize its potential.

According to its website, Google Earth Outreach “gives nonprofits and public benefit organizations the knowledge and resources they need to visualize their cause and tell their story” using the free online applications Google Earth and Google Maps. On its home page is the legend: “You want to change the world. We want to help.”

In this case, said Nikki Spangenburg, the Dreaming New Mexico program manager, “The maps will show where existing and proposed renewable energy sites are located with a focus on small distributed solar, mid-size and large-scale projects that are in development.”

Google Earth software has created maps that stopped a plan to log more than 1,000 acres in the Santa Cruz Mountains; to raise awareness and opposition to mountaintop removal coal mining in Appalachia; and to discover and preserve a rare fringing coral reef in a remote area of Western Australia.

In conjunction with the installation at the Chapter House and the Future Maps, Dreaming New Mexico and New Energy Economy worked with filmmaker Douglas Crawford to produce a movie that will further the awareness among Navajo communities and tribal council leaders about the benefits of clean energy and jobs. The movie will be released in the coming weeks on both and

“A dire environmental knowledge deficit cuts across all levels of society, including public officials, policy makers, educational institutions and the business community,” said Spangenburg. “Creating widespread awareness of viable alternatives dramatically leverages the pressure for change.”

This three-prong approach to public awareness — the physical installation of the solar panel, the Future Maps, and the film — ideally will provide the jumping-off point that the Navajo, the Southwest and the U.S. need to move on from fossil fuels.

While Dreaming New Mexico, New Energy Economy and Google Earth Outreach are beginning with a more localized vision of the future — one where your power comes from your roof, or down the street — they’re all taking the first, often most difficult step in creating the foundation of knowledge, experience, and understanding that might lead to a sustainable energy future.

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