How the Navajo got their day in the sun


How the Navajo got their day in the sun
Danny Kennedy
Thu, 05/28/2020 - 02:00

In late March, during the early hours of the COVID-19 crisis, just as New Yorkers were realizing how many might die, a small solar development company closed a $4 million financing deal. "Closing" is never easy, but getting a half-dozen high-net-worth individuals, family offices and foundations to pony up as the world’s finance markets crashed around them was a triumph. 

Getting the deal done was impressive in its own right, given that private equity had all but frozen in the weeks before and most venture-backed startups were running on fumes, telling their angel investors and anyone who’d listen that they had three months’ financial runway, or less. It seems even more important now, given the terrible toll COVID-19 is having right where the solar is planned: the Navajo Nation.

A young team saddled with ambition and support from their tribal government, this largely native-owned company, Navajo Power , was getting ready to build a major solar project in one of the poorest communities in America. 

"We are working hard to create jobs and build resilient infrastructure for our Nation and for the greater western region," explained Brett Isaac, founder and CEO.

"Navajo has perhaps the highest unemployment in the country at 65 percent — that’s pre-COVID. It is clearly going up, due to the virus. We need to put people back to work in creating the clean energy future. Developing some of the biggest projects in the world and maximizing the benefits for our communities can provide the resources needed to fund a wave of local infrastructure and community economic development initiatives. Clean energy can be our bridge."

A company to watch, and learn from

Navajo Power was co-founded by Isaac and his old friend Dan Rosen, a college dropout from New Jersey. Rosen was adopted by Navajo artist Shonto Begay in his teens and went on to start one of the U.S.’s largest solar loan business, Mosaic. These two and their partners are leading the charge for the Navajo Nation’s just transition, from coal dependence to clean energy superpower.

This movement one day will be studied in colleges around the world; justice can be done.

Such drama around Navajo is justified. This is the largest indigenous community in the United States, with 250,000 people and a land base the size of West Virginia. There is a sordid history of "divide and conquer," involving everyone from Kit Carson to the Sierra Club. The wealth of energy resources on Navajo land invited exploitation throughout the 20th century. Uranium was mined there. And coal. Lots of coal. Mined and burned to provide power for Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Tucson and Phoenix. 

The wealth of energy resources on Navajo land invited exploitation throughout the 20th century. Uranium was mined there. And coal. Lots of coal....

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