The utility company in charge of powering the Navajo Nation, where roughly 10 percent live without power, is receiving a $94 million federal loan for two sprawling solar farms, U.S. Department of Agriculture officials announced Thursday.
The newest of the two plants, operated by the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority and slated to go online in two weeks, will provide enough energy to power 18,000 Navajo homes.
Randy Parker, state director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development in Utah, said the loan presents a “mega opportunity,” both to harvest solar energy in the cloudless Arizona desert and to help the nation "meet basic needs.” The loan comes as the local coal fire plant, the Navajo Generating Station, will shut down later this year.
“That will be mothballed, and this will step in to fill that vacuum,” Parker said.
Though based in Northeastern Arizona, the two solar plants will indirectly impact the estimated 7,000 Navajo living in Southeastern Utah by helping keep rates reasonable and the power grid reliable, says Glenn Steiger, an executive consultant at the Navajo Nation's utility authority. Utah’s San Juan County, where half of the population live on the reservation, is one of the poorest in the state.
The majority of the Navajo Nation’s residents rely on the company for basic utilities, though a segment of the population — scattered in parts of Utah, Arizona and New Mexico — remains too remote to reach. Steiger said he hopes to extend the grid to these rural areas with income from the new plant.
“Some of the revenue also goes to pay for the construction of new facilities to serve the 15,000 families that currently do not have any power at all on the Navajo Nation reservation,” he said, adding that the authority currently expands its grid to an additional 400 to 500 families each year.