Veronica E. Tiller, Ph.D.
Driving west on I-40 from Albuquerque to Gallup, arid and barren desert plateau country dominates the landscape. The ever-present huge electrical transmission line monotonously keeps you company. About 30 miles out of Albuquerque and five miles past the Route 66 Casino, and north on Exit 131 for another 10 miles is To’Hajiilee, a small Navajo community that was formerly called Cañoncito. To’Hajiilee in Navajo means, ‘Bringing up Water from a Natural Well.’ In 2006, according to its economic profile in Tiller’s Guide to Indian Country, this 77,965-acre reservation had a population of 1,741, a labor force of 531, and an unemployment rate of 78 percent. The per-capita income was $5,877.
Like the mythical phoenix arising from ashes to create a city, To’Hajiilee in recent years proposed to convert 500 acres of its desert flatlands and its 300-plus days of sunshine per year into one of the largest solar farms in the Southwest that it named Shandiin Solar LLC, the Navajo name for sunlight. Plans for transforming the sun’s rays from the skies into a source of electricity, revenues and jobs for the community created a rebirth and a renewal of hope for the people—a hope now clouded by economic forces beyond the reservation boundaries and beyond the control of the community.
Until early in this century, To’Hajiilee seemed to have no viable prospect for participating in the modern economy, no promise for economic development of its own. A sub-unit of the huge Navajo Reservation to the west, To’Hajiilee receives only modest revenues for administrative costs from the Navajo Nation. The community’s infrastructure, consisting largely of a community school, a community center, health clinic, new courthouse and residential housing, has all been built with funds provided by the federal government.
In 2001 the community re-examined its prospects and saw in the sun shining on the desert flatlands and glinting off nearby transmission lines, with commercial capacity connecting it to Albuquerque, the basic ingredients for making something from nothing. To’Hajiilee decided to build a solar farm that had the capacity to provide up to 55 mW of electricity to Albuquerque, enough to power 10,000 homes with clean renewable energy. Delores Apache, president of To’Hajiilee Economic Development, Inc. was optimistic. She could see what the revenue from the plant would mean for her community: a daycare center, programs for senior citizens and veterans, more efficient wells for drawing water, and scholarships for youngsters.
Ever since the Arab oil embargo of 1973 sparked national interest in developing all sources of domestic energy, including renewables, Indian tribes throughout the country have been both cosseted and buffeted by the shifting currents of energy markets and federal energy policies. FDR-era legislation protecting territorial monopolies in exchange for reliability of service gave way to the Natural Gas Policy Act of 1978, which sought to increase domestic production by gradually deregulating prices. In the electricity arena, the Public Utility Regulatory Policy Act of 1978, among other things, for the first time required public utilities to provide a market for electricity produced from wind, solar and other renewable resources.
To’Hajiilee dedicated 500 acres to the project; formed the business structures appropriate for the venture including a Delaware LLC; established relationships with financial advisors, seasoned energy lawyers, and manufacturers; and received encouraging early signals from Public Service Company of New Mexico (PNM) that it would be looking for sources to meet its required portfolio of renewably sourced energy. The Obama administration’s emphasis on shifting from fossil fuels to a renewable energy resource base fit right into To’Hajiilee’s plans. The US Department of Energy provided grant funds in 2011 for studies that demonstrated complete feasibility from hydrological, geological, environmental, political, legal and technical perspectives.
PNM, however, balked at executing a Power Purchase Agreement to buy electricity produced by To’Hajiilee virtually underneath PNM’s lines. The state’s largest utility had decided to meet its renewable energy requirements by constructing its own solar plants. In 2011, PNM announced plans to build and operate five solar plants of its own, just enough to meet its requirement to provide 10 percent of its electricity from renewable sources and 20 percent by the year 2020. PNM’s real attitude toward independently produced solar power may be better expressed in its own July 2011 Integrated Resource Management Plan for 2011-2030: “Renewable resources are added to meet regulatory requirements, but [they] increase cost and degrade system operation.”
In other words, it appears independently produced solar power in New Mexico will have to fight its way onto PNM’s lines. To’Hajiilee might build it, but PNM won’t be coming, not voluntarily at least, anytime soon.
Veronica E. Tiller, Ph.D is a member of Jicarilla Apache Nation. She is the editor and publisher of Tiller’s Guide to Indian Country: Economic Profiles of American Indian Reservations (2005). She is updating this Guide. She can be reached at 505.328.9772. Her website is veronicatiller.com.