August 2012

Solar Projects Going Up on Tribal Lands


Op-Ed by Sam Kessler



In early May 2011, as spring was beginning to make itself known, the finishing touches for the new solar installation at the communal Crownpoint Chapter House were underway. The visible solar trackers were ceremoniously recognized by the Crownpoint Navajo people and by the organizations and individuals that had worked in conjunction with the community’s residents.

Reflecting on the day’s events, Mariel Nanasi—a key figure in helping make the solar installation possible and executive director of the Santa Fe-based nonprofit New Energy Economy—said, “It was a significant effort made at a necessary time. Already people of Crownpoint are realizing the benefits of localized renewable energy and many are excited that their initiative has inspired other solar development projects.” Of those benefits already being felt, health and energy costs were paramount on people’s minds.

Crownpoint is located in the shadow of PNM’s San Juan Generating Station, an 1800-megawatt, coal-fired power plant. Residents’ daily struggles include asthma, lung disease and heart
failure. But these symptoms are not unique to those living near coal plants. According to a 2009 New Mexico Department of Health survey, nearly one in five middle school students and one in four high school students in the state report that they’ve been told by a doctor at one point in their life that they have asthma or other lung-related health issues.


Unlike fossil fuels, the production and burning of which release greenhouses gases, carcinogens and hazardous air pollutants, solar systems don’t release toxins into the air.

Recognizing the need for change in order to improve this situation, both Tesuque Pueblo and the Tohatchi Community Chapter House have signed on to localize their energy use in the form of solar generators. Thanks to a partnership with New Energy Economy, Tesuque Pueblo and Tohatchi Community Chapter House solar power systems will be established this year. Tesuque’s plan is to place solar generators at the Tesuque Pueblo Day School. Because of its location, students at the school and members of the communitywill likely start asking questions about how the photovoltaic system operates, how much electricity it generates, how much carbon pollution it avoids, etc. These discussions will hopefully bring into view the benefits of a local energy economy.  In addition, as a result of using the solar generators, their energy costs will drop significantly, allowing, as Tesuque Pueblo’s resolution states, “Monies that would be previously allocated for energy expenditures to PNM to be diverted back into the community.”


Over the next 25years, the Crownpoint solar trackers are expected to save $114,115 in energy costs, 139,000 gallons of water, and reduce nearly half a million pounds of carbon dioxide pollution from the atmosphere. One can hope that similar or better results will be seen at Tohatchi Community Chapter House and at Tesuque Pueblo. And then from there, imagine the power of thousands of localized solar generating stations devoted to clean energy production, and infuse of all the energy money saved back into the community. Just think: better health, education and safety services, and definitely better and lots more local jobs.


These are model projects with tangible results. If you would like to contribute to these projects, please visit: If you want to join us for the solar green-ribbon cutting, sign up at:




Sam Kessler, a student at United World College in Montezuma, New Mexico, is an intern this summer with New Energy Economy.




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