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Stewardship and Sustainability: Navajo Nation Works on Geothermal Greenhouse

Navajo Nation pilot program powers greenhouse using geothermal energy.

The Navajo Nation could soon see a geothermal greenhouse, thanks to a newly minted agreement with a Colorado university.

The Navajo Transitional Energy Company (NTEC) was formed in 2013 to help manage the Navajo Mine near Farmington, New Mexico, after the Navajo Nation bought the mine from the international coal company BHP in late 2012. As part of its mission, NTEC has committed to spending 10 percent of its profits in pursuit of renewable energy opportunities in order to diversify the Navajo Nation’s energy portfolio.

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The geothermal project will be the first real fruit of this goal. NTEC has entered into plans to start a pilot project to explore and develop geothermal resources in Tohatchi, New Mexico, north of Gallup. Tohatchi Chapter voters unanimously supported the project, passing a resolution 34–0 in late June. The resolution authorizes resource exploration, a project feasibility study, and allows NTEC to seek outside funding for energy development pertaining to the geothermal project.

NTEC began exploring potential geothermal projects in the fall of 2015 and formed a partnership with the Colorado School of Mines. Current plans include geothermal greenhouses that would grow local plants and trees, its goal to provide jobs for the local community. The greenhouses could also help build capacity at Navajo Technical University in nearby Crownpoint by supplying opportunities for student research and collaboration in the project.

“We are interested in projects that will empower communities with economic growth,” said Masami Nakagawa, associate professor at the Colorado School of Mines and the school’s point person on the project.

NTEC spokesman Erny Zah said the emphasis is on economic development rather than power generation.

“Once off the ground, it could employ 20-30 people and grow Native plants,” Zah said. He added that NTEC officials have met with Navajo forestry officials about the possibility of raising vegetation for reseeding fire-damaged areas, over-grazed parts of the forest, or old roads. Ideas have been advanced about creating a research center for students, or a field site for botanists.

But Zah said all of these ideas, though exciting, are still preliminary.

“A feasibility study is the first step,” he said.

Zah said the geothermal partnership goes beyond BTEC’s mandate to invest in renewable energy, reaching into land stewardship and community empowerment.

“For years the Navajo Nation has been talking about sovereignty and self-determination,” Zah said. “ This is sovereignty and self-determination in action, because now the Navajo Nation can dictate how we want this mine to operate. But at the same time, we have obligations of stewardship to our communities. That’s important to us as a Navajo company.”