- By Valerie Vande Panne
Hopi Tribe has been awarded grant funding and selected as a finalist to the Economic Development Administrations Create a Better Regional Challenge for affected coal communities. The closure of the Navajo Generating Station coal plant has had a negative impact on the Hopis economy. This large-scale solar project offers an opportunity to change the tribe’s energy policy and economic strategy.
Native News OnlineRecently, I spoke with Carroll Onsae (president and general manager of the Hopi Utilities Corporation) about the tribes’ solar energy plans.
This interview was edited to be concise and clear.
Native News Online: Could you tell us about the energy supply at Hopi, and your plans to switch to solar energy?
Carroll OnsaeHopi do have an energy provider, but over the years they have experienced blackouts as well as brownouts. Hopi Utilities Corporation was formed to see if Hopi could provide power by their own means. There were some grant opportunities available due to the pandemic. While solar might not be the perfect solution to their power situation or power needs, it may be possible to combine regular and solar power sources.
Native News Online: Is it owned by the tribe or a cooperative?
Carroll OnsaeArizona Public Service is the current utility provider. They have been providing power to the reservation for many years. But we are not isolated. We’re a reservation within a reservation. Hopi may have tried to or is currently working with APS in order to increase its power resources.
Native News Online: What is the future of solar? What’s the timeline for this?
Carroll OnsaeThe Economic Development Administration grant we received goes to communities that have suffered losses in revenue streams, assets, or services as a result of power-plant closings and coal mining activities. Hopi hopes to apply for funds in order to help regain some of the revenue and assets lost. It isn’t really replacing APS. APS is a Hopi Partner and is looking into the development effort we’re trying. The solar farm would produce electricity for a low power user and would be built right next to the existing solar farm. We think it might be a data centre.
Native News Online: Hopi received the EDA grant. How much did they give to the tribe?
Carroll OnsaeThis is actually two phases. Phase one is the planning phase. They gave $500,000. Phase one is a planning phase. They gave $500,000. It will be the project I just described. If we submit a successful application, then we will be granted funds to build out.
Native News Online: You have been granted $500,000 initially to plan something. After that, you must submit your plan to them and they could fund it. Are you at the planning stage?
Carroll OnsaeYou have a very short time to submit your proposal. It should be by March 15. We are currently looking for potential partners to help us with this project. We are working with a power supplier to provide backup power in the event of rain or prolonged periods without sunlight. We are also interested in potential energy users that could locate on the site. We have located a site on the reservation. Now we need to get a land parcel.
Native News Online: Would the tribe own it if it was a data centre? And what type of data center would it have?
Carroll OnsaeThere are currently several options for the data centre. These companies have not committed to any of the options, and we have not narrowed them down. Hopi tribes would prefer to be 100% owners. If the award isn’t enough to build what we want, we’ll need to look for other sources to fund the entire project. There may be investment opportunities available to help build the structures or the system.
Native News Online: What would the data center do? And for whom?
Carroll OnsaeI don’t yet know. A consultant is helping us to reach out to potential partners. These discussions are held under a confidentiality agreement. Therefore, I don’t have the authority to share any details.
Native News Online: Currently, the primary energy source on the reservation, aside from coal, is Arizona Public Services. The hope is to build a solar farm to power a data center, which would be used by the tribe for economic development. Arizona Public Services would continue to provide electricity to consumers. The solar farm would supply energy only for the data centre, which could generate revenue for tribe.
Carroll Onsae Right. But this is a long-term vision. We are also doing a feasibility study. HUC, the Hopi Utilities Corporation could become the primary provider of power either by partnering with Arizona Public Services or purchasing their facilities. Or, combining solar with the existing power source. We are not yet able to draw any conclusions. However, depending on what we find out, this project could be expanded to provide power to reservation end-users and not just to the data center. This is a start for the Hopi tribe in its efforts to strategize and plan its economic development. Hopi villages could use this revenue stream to fund more things, such as improving their water systems.
We are also interested in workforce development. This will train Hopis to operate and manage the solar-power and data-center systems. There could be some spillover from this project into other smaller economic development projects. This would create jobs on the reservation. Because this system is highly technological, it could be extended to education for our young Hopi. It would require science, technology engineering, math curricula. This would be one way to keep talent and intelligence on the reservations.
Native News Online: Do you have any suggestions?
Carroll OnsaeThis is a huge opportunity to rewrite both our energy and economic development histories. Hopi tribal members will have a brighter tomorrow if this is a start. It’ll be a great help to the Hopi tribe in its efforts to self-determination. There will also be benefits for the Hopi people, from the youngest to the oldest. We’re excited.
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About the Author
Native News Online’s managing editor is Valerie Vande Panne. Vande Panne, a journalist for over 30 years, has been an editor and reporter at a wide range of media outlets such as NPR, Metro Detroit, High Times, and many others. Vande Panne is a stringer at Reuters and The New York Times. She has contributed to The Guardian, Politico, Bloomberg, The Guardian and The New York Times over her career.