Navajo Chapter Plans Largest Utility-Scale Solar Farm on Tribal Land


The To'Hajiilee Navajo Chapter plans to establish a solar array farm on its trust lands, a flat stretch of prairie in central New Mexico where land preparation for the project is minimal, reported the Associated Press.

A 115-kilovolt power line already runs through the trust land site, leading to Albuquerque just 21 miles away, according to a presentation by Rob Burpo, president of First American Financial Advisors, Inc., based in Albuquerque, one of the consulting groups working with the To'Hajiilee. With no upgrades to the line required, energy transmission would be cost efficient.

Once a power purchase agreement is solidified, construction of the solar photovoltaic arrays could take as little as nine months. "I think if we're able to find a power buyer fairly quickly, we certainly ought to be breaking ground this fall. That's our goal," Burpo told the AP.

The project planned for the sun-drenched dusty land has been dubbed Shandiin Solar, the Navajo name for sunlight. The solar photovoltaic plant will share the $6.5 million recently awarded by the U.S. Department of Energy's Tribal Energy Program to 19 projects to propel renewable energy development on tribal lands.

If realized, Shandiin Solar will be the largest utility-scale solar photovoltaic array in the U.S. on tribal land, Doug MacCourt, a partner at the Portland, Oregon-based Ater Wynne LLP who helps tribal communities such as To'Hajiilee generate and transmit energy, told the AP.

The solar farm would be capable of producing 55 megawatts of electricity, or enough to power more than 10,000 homes miles away from the reservation.

The chapter, also know as the Cañoncito Band of Navajos, is located 60 miles from the Navajo Reservation in To'Hajiilee, New Mexico, which is roughly 35 miles from Albuquerque.

The chapter claimed 1,649 members during the 2000 census, and approximately 70 percent of the To'Hajiilee adult population is unemployed. The solar project stands to greatly improve the Cañoncito Band of Navajos' standard of living.

According to Delores Apache, president of To'Hajiilee Economic Development, Inc. (TEDI), the project could mean a daycare center for her community, programs for senior citizens and veterans, better roads, more efficient wells for drawing water, language preservation programs and scholarships for tribal youth.

"It's going to mean a whole lot," Apache told the AP. "We have no means of economic development. No dollars. We don't have anything at all."

The To'Hajiilee created the for-profit economic development corporation in 2005, then owned by the Navajo Nation. The Cañoncito Band assumed 100 percent ownership in 2009 to form TEDI.

TEDI is working closely with Bernalillo County, which has agreed to pave roads and handle related issues, and the local electric utilities, the Albuquerque-based PNM, New Mexico's largest electricity provider, according to its website, and the Gallup-based Continental Divide Electric Cooperative. Burpo has said both electricity providers are open to negotiations. Apache also regularly meets with attorneys, energy experts and financiers nationwide.

In the meantime, and for five years running, Apache continues to host meetings for To'Hajiilee residents in a reservation building that has been condemned for more than 15 years, she told the AP. By lighting a fire in the building's small wood stove and wrapping the elderly in blankets, they have endured winter meetings to keep their vision for Shandiin Solar on track.