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Marshall Swearingen | Mar 07, 2013 12:00 AM

On March 11, 2011, the 500-foot smokestack of the Mohave Generating Station, a notoriously dirty coal-fired power plant in far southern Nevada, was spectacularly demolished. From 1971 until 2005, the plant had gobbled coal and sucked groundwater from neighboring lands belonging to the Hopi and Navajo, who had a complicated relationship to the plant and the Black Mesa coal mine that fed it. The plant and mine had brought environmental degradation but also some high-paying jobs. So the dust raised by the rubble hung in the air with a question: what's next?

mohave generating station
Mohave Generating Station

Part of the answer came last month, when California's Public Utilities Commission decided that Southern California Edison, Mohave's primary owner, must support renewable energy projects that benefit the Hopi and Navajo by selling its now-unused sulfur dioxide emissions credits. The decision marks the culmination of an effort to redress decades of sacrifice -- asthma, dried-up springs, displacement, land ravaged by strip mining -- largely forced upon the Hopi and Navajo to keep Los Angeles air-conditioned and Las Vegas lit up. 

In 1999, the Grand Canyon Trust and the Sierra Club sued Mohave's owners over emissions violations, forcing the utilities to upgrade the plant's pollution controls by 2005 or shut down. The utilities were willing to make the upgrades, but only if Hopi and Navajo officials renewed the mining company's leases to coal and groundwater on which Mohave depended: the plant was fed by a 273-mile pipeline that transported a slurry of coal mixed with pristine groundwater pumped from the Black Mesa aquifer at a rate of a billion gallons per year. That water, which Hopi and Navajo had relied on for centuries, was drying up, and many tribal members weren’t willing to renew the water leases; in 2005, that opposition coupled with the air pollution lawsuit forced the plant and the Black Mesa coal mine to shut down.

After Mohave went off-line in 2005, Southern California Edison was left with sulfur-dioxide emissions allowances that it held in order to comply with a federal cap-and-trade program set up in 1995 to reduce haze and acid rain. The allowances could be sold to other polluters, bringing Edison up to $40 million per year. In 2006, the utility asked California’s PUC for permission to use that revenue to lower electricity rates for its customers.

That's when the Just Transition Coalition, a group of tribal activist organizations and the environmentalists who originally sued Mohave, countered with a plan they’d been developing to ease the economic and social impact of the mine’s closure. Their idea was to use the money from the allowance sales to develop renewable energy projects that would provide economic benefit to the Hopi and Navajo. Revenue would go into a "revolving fund" that the tribes could tap, in the form of no-interest loans, for projects like building solar-panel arrays. The tribes could even sell the power back to Edison.

At first, several parties opposed the plan. Hopi and Navajo tribal officials argued over who would get the money, and California consumer groups favored lower electricity rates. But through many, many meetings, the parties began to see how the plan would benefit everyone. It would help the utility fulfill California's ambitious renewable portfolio standard, which requires utilities to get 33 percent of their power from renewable sources by 2020. Consumer groups started supporting the plan as an act of environmental justice, and tribal officials started to find middle ground.

The PUC's approval of the plan last month is a landmark for tribal groups that have pushed for years to find paths out of the coal economy. The money could give a boost to projects that have been on the drawing board for years, like a 5-20 MW solar-panel array proposed by Black Mesa Water Coalition, and could inspire new, bigger projects.

Still, the plan has already faced some setbacks. The value of Edison's SO2 credits from Mohave has sunk since 2005, from a high of $40 million per year to only $3 million today, as other plants have installed pollution controls and demand for the credits has waned, meaning there is less money for the renewable energy loan fund. And there will be other challenges ahead for the tribes. To get projects off the ground, says Wahleah Johns, environmental justice coordinator at the Black Mesa Water Coalition, partnerships need to be forged between and within tribal communities. That's a change from simply going along with the big plans of the outside energy companies, who still hold sway in the tribal leadership.

The PUC's decision could help tip the balance toward more renewable energy in a region that's already prime for it. The sun shines bright on Black Mesa, and while renewable energy projects elsewhere have to build expensive and controversial new transmission lines, those lines are already strung right to the edge of the Navajo reservation -- to where the Mohave Generating Station used to be.

"I would like to see the Navajo Nation remain in the energy market. . . but I'd like them to get proactive and really start moving in a direction (that's) going to be sustainable," says Nicole Horseherder, co-founder of To Nizhoni Ani, an anti-coal Navajo activist group.

"We have an opportunity to make a better future. Why not take it?"

Marshall Swearingen is an intern at High Country News.

Photo of Mohave Generating Station courtesy Wikimedia Commons user kjkolb.

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