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Navajos set to tap power of the wind

Hundreds of windmills reaching nearly 400 feet into the sky could begin sprouting on the Navajo Reservation north of Flagstaff under a new agreement to harness wind energy for electrical use.

The Navajo Nation announced Thursday that it will partner with a Boston company to capitalize on the blustery conditions prevailing on the high mesas of northern Arizona. The Diné Wind Project, which would be the first commercial wind farm in the state, calls for Citizens Energy Corp. to invest millions of dollars to build the energy-collecting towers.

The enterprise was sealed this month by Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr., other key tribal officials and Citizens Energy Chairman Joseph P. Kennedy II, a former congressman and son of the late U.S. Sen. Robert Kennedy and Ethel Kennedy. The agreement comes after nearly two years of pre-development work and marks another step in the Navajo Nation’s move to exploit renewable-power sources for so-called clean energy.

In a news release Thursday, Shirley said the wind-gathering effort will “bring prosperity for the Navajo people and build our energy independence while providing jobs and other benefits for the Navajo Nation.”

The operation is planned in the Gray Mountain area west of U.S. 89, about 50 miles north of Flagstaff.

The tribe and its Diné Power Authority become partners in a joint enterprise known as Citizens Enterprise Corp., a subsidiary of Citizens Energy. Deswood Tome, a Navajo Nation spokesman, said the project is expected to generate 500 megawatts of electricity, enough to serve an estimated 100,000 households. As many as 300 turbine towers would be erected in several locations between Flagstaff and Tuba City, with first-phase completion in about three years.

The development would be among the largest wind-power installations in the country, said Bob Gough, secretary of the Intertribal Council on Utility Policy in Rosebud, S.D. The largest is near Abilene, Texas, which produces 736 megawatts. A cluster of separate wind farms near Palm Springs, Calif., contains thousands of turbines.

Gough said the Navajo Nation has some of the stiffest winds for turbines in Arizona, adding, “They’ve instrumented the Gray Mountain area, and on maps it probably shows the best resource in Arizona. That area also is the site of transmission lines coming out of the Four Corners region.”

Environmental issues
Citizens Energy has been involved in renewable-electricity development for three decades, according to the company’s Web site, and began working on wind projects in 2003, including other joint ventures with tribes in the United States and Canada. The Diné Wind Project would be the nation’s largest Native American wind project.Roger Freeman, managing director of the wind project for Citizens Energy, said via e-mail that the wind towers would be 260 feet tall, with blades reaching an additional 135 feet above ground. Freeman emphasized that the company is committed to developing energy “in an environmentally responsible manner, including consideration for cultural impacts and respect for tribal sacred sites.”

Tome said he is not aware of opposition to the development plan. Citizens’ Web site says company and Navajo leaders have worked to involve local tribal members in planning efforts.

Andy Bessler, a Sierra Club Southwest representative, said his group has not taken a formal position on the wind-farm project but welcomes Navajo efforts to exploit a renewable-power source that won’t add to global warming.

“I think there will be ‘viewshed’ issues,” Bessler said, noting that windmill orchards are perceived as eyesores by some. “But the local community members are very supportive.”

Don Steuter, another Sierra Club representative, said studies must be done to determine whether the project threatens wildlife, including endangered California condors that patrol the Grand Canyon area.

Steuter said wind farms have posed a threat to birds of prey. Still, environmentalists encourage clean-energy efforts, Steuter said. “We have been encouraging the tribe to move in that direction.”

For 30 years, a mine at Black Mesa on the reservation was operated by Peabody Western Coal Co., piping coal slurry to the Mohave Generating Plant in Nevada for energy production. That mine closed in 2006 after Southern California Edison shut down the power plant rather than pay $1 billion for environmental work and other upgrades.

The Navajo Nation has not abandoned coal as an economic resource, however. The tribe is struggling to develop a new coal-fired power plant near Farmington, N.M.,which developers hope will sell energy to Phoenix or Las Vegas.

Potential buyers
Precise terms of the Citizens Enterprises compact were not divulged. But a tribal news release says Navajos will have “a significant ownership stake” in developments, reaping $60 million to $100 million over the project’s lifetime.

No cost estimate was released for development. Christine Real de Azua, a spokeswoman for the American Wind Energy Association, said expenses range from $1.5 million to $1.8 million per megawatt of wind power produced.

That would put the project’s value at $750 million to $900 million, although rising steel prices could increase those figures, Real de Azua said.

Two utilities serving the Valley, Salt River Project and Arizona Public Service Co., would seem likely buyers because they already purchase wind power generated in New Mexico. But the Diné project was news to both on Thursday.

“They have not come to talk to us about it,” APS spokesman Jim McDonald said, adding that the utility is seeking alternative electricity to meet a state requirement to supply more renewable energy.

“It would be ideal if it came in at a price that was competitive,” McDonald added.

SRP has a similar requirement.

“If the Navajo Nation were to build a project of this size, we would consider looking into it,” SRP spokesman Scott Harelson said.

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