Navajo Generating Station, Navajo Nation

Located within the Navajo American reservations, the Navajo Generating Station (NGS) is the largest power plant in the western USA[1]. As a key facility of Central Arizona Project (CAP), it generates power from coal to move the water from the Colorado River to other parts of the region[2]. Though the station benefits the local economy and provides water and electricity to surrounding areas, the local residents not only lack the access to electricity but also have to bear the environmental degradation due to the air pollution from the NGS[3].

Navajo Generating Station Under the Sky (Myrabella, 2014)

The Background of the Navajo Generating Station:

The naturally limited water resources in the Western United States restrained the region from urban and agricultural developments[4]. Fortunately, the Colorado River was discovered to have abundant water that could support the water demand of the region. After discovering the Colorado River as a major water source, there was a series of projects that transported its water for different purposes. The Central Arizona Project was established for diverting water from the Colorado River to Central and Southern Arizona and major cities such as Los Angeles and Las Vegas[5]. To transport water, the state and federal governments requested the construction of water canals and power plants that provide energy to move water. Because the Navajo Generating Station was the key energy station that provided most of the power needed to deliver water, it was supported by both the state government and the federal government due to its potential contribution to the CAP[6].


A Canal of Central Arizona Project (Ferris, 2015)

How are Different Stakeholders Affected?

In the Navajo Nation, around 96 percent of residents are Native Americans[7]. They rely on the local environment to raise sheep and cattle and grow corn and squash as major food sources[8]. However, since the NGS moved to their land, there have been higher rates of premature death, heart attacks and asthma due to the enormous amounts of sulfur dioxide and greenhouse gases[9]. Though they are provided with the jobs from the station, they are still an economically marginalized community. Over 43 percent of the people are below poverty level, and the average per capita income is $7,300 compared with the U.S. average income’s $43,000[10].

A Native American Woman and the Station (Friederici 2015)

People provided with water and electricity through the CAP and the NGS are benefited from the station. The station provides electricity to Nevada, Arizona, and California. The price of electricity in Arizona is around 12.22 cents per kilowatt hour compared with 12.73 cents per kilowatt hour of U.S. average price, and the electricity consumption is also higher in Arizona than U.S. average[11]. The water from the Colorado Water is moved to Central and Southern Arizona and several major cities. Though Phoenix, as one of the cities, naturally lacks sufficient water sources, it has one of the lowest monthly water bills in the U.S. The average rate is only $16.47 compared with $21.56 in Chicago, which is considered to be naturally water-richer[12].

The station owners, including the governments and the Investor-Owned Utilities (IOUs), also take advantage of the land and exploit coal and labor force for the achievement of the CAP. By generating the electricity and carrying out the CAP, these governmental owners can generate 50% of the state’s economic activities.

How Environmental Injustice Exists?

Navajo Nation is selected deliberately as the location of NGS. The station owners can encounter less resistance by siting it here. According to the path of the least resistance, the residents are ethnic minorities and have limited political power to influence the station. The local residents were excluded from the decision-making processes. The Navajo leaders who are able to get involved in the processes did not necessarily serve the best interest for their people. Many valued the economic development, promising jobs, and revenue more than the environment and the people’s health[13].

Moreover, according to Nye’s theory of technological momentum, people at first choose coal as an energy source due to its high energy density and easy transportation[14]. However, after coal gains technological momentum, coal becomes a part of a complex system including manufacturing infrastructure and social construction such as employment. The whole system makes it more difficult to influence. In the Navajo Nation, influencing the station would cause a huge job loss for the local residents. Though the residents complained the environmental degradation caused by the NGS, they might be unwilling to thwart its operation[15]. Also, if the station was simply shut down the station, the people from major cities or Central and Southern Arizona who have relied on the water transported by the CAP would potentially encounter a water crisis.

In addition to the resistance from the residents, there are insufficient environmental laws regulating the station. When the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determined the overall reduction of carbon emission, it did not take the plants on Indian Reservations in Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona into account[16]. Thus since the station is on a tribal land, it can get exemption from the state pollution portfolio[17]. After the environmental activists caught the eyes of the EPA, it attempted to ask the station to install Selective Catalytic Reduction that could potentially reduce 84 percent of nitrogen oxide emissions[18]. However, due to the support from the state and federal governments and the purpose of serving the CAP, the station was able to negotiate with the EPA and put off the installation date[19].

Should the station owners be responsible for the implications of the NGS? Before answering this question, it is important to ask whether coal plants can be operated in a different way that generates less pollutants. In contrast to other coal-fired plants in other states, the NGS emitted much higher amounts of sulfur dioxides and nitrogen oxides. For instance, Costumes Power Plant in California only emit 0.002 tons per gigawatt hour in 2014 compared with one unit of the NGS producing 0.329 tons per gigawatt hour[20]. Similar huge difference was found in nitrogen oxides emission as well. This comparison suggests that there are ways that make the station more environmentally friendly like others. However, the stakeholders in charge of the station do not follow the EPA’s suggestion of installing Selective Catalytic Reduction and do not comply the environmental regulation. Therefore, they are responsible for the environmental issues and social injustice caused by the operation of the NGS.

The Emission Table Created by the Author Using the Data from the EPA Statistics (United States Environmental Protection Agency 2016)

Any Potential Alternatives or Solutions?

Developing cleaner energy may be one potential solution because Arizona has significant potential for renewable energy[21]. However, the transition to these energy resources is challenging because they are not energy-efficient enough. To construct Navajo Generating Station, Arizona State became in debt to the federal government[22]. In order to pay the debt, the state has to get its revenue by providing cheap water and selling excessive electricity power. To stimulate the development of renewable energy and make it competitive, the state government may consider subsidies or infrastructure constructions, but the government is already in debt and may be unwilling to undergo other costly projects.

Developing other industries such as tourism may be beneficial to both indigenous people and the local economy because it will make the people less dependent on the coal industry for jobs and stimulate the local economy. However, it is also difficult. The local environment has been degraded and become less attractive to tourists. Developing these industries may only be feasible if the government takes strong actions on emission regulations. Therefore, based on the network already established by the coal industries and the pro-coal government, diminishing the influence of Navajo Generating Station is difficult.

To view the entire paper, click here.


[1] Lustgarten, A. (2015, June 16). Navajo Generating Station Powers and Paralyzes the Western U.S. Scientific American, Retrieved March 03, 2016, from

[2] Curwood, S. (Host), and Lustgarten, A.(Writer). (2015). The Power Plant that’s Draining the Colorado. Live on Earth. Retrieved March 03, 2016, from

[3] McGraw, G. (2013). These American Families Live Without Running Water. The Huffington Post. Retrieved March 03, 2016, from

Sadasivam, N. (2015). Power Plants on Indian Reservations Get No Break on Emissions Rules. Retrieved March 03, 2016, from

[4] Burkman, K. (2014). John Wesley Powell and the Arid Empire of the American West. Retrieved from

[5] Lustgarten (2015).

[6] Curwood and Lustgarten (2015).

[7] Arizona Rural Policy Institute. (n.d.). Demographic Analysis of the Navajo Nation Using 2010 Census and 2010 American Community Survey Estimates. Arizona Commission of Indian Affairs. Retrieved March 03, 2016, from Nation.pdf.

[8] Horseherder, N. (2014). EPA failed to clean up air for Navajo Nation. The Arizona Republic. Retrieved March 03, 2016, from

[9] Hitt, M.A. (2014). Arizona: Fight for Clean Air and Clean Energy Inspires a Family of Activists. The Huffington Post. Retrieved March 03, 2016, from

[10] Landry, A. (2015). Not Alone In the Dark: Navajo Nation’s Lack of Electricity Problem. Indian Country Today. Retrieved March 03, 2016, from

[11] U.S. Department of Energy. (2015). Arizona Energy Statistics. Retrieved March 03, 2016, from

[12] United States Environmental Protection Agency. (n.d.). State Water Facts. Retrieved March 03, 2016, from

[13] Clay, R.F. (2014). Tribe at a Crossroads: The Navajo Nation Purchases a Coal Mine. Environmental Health Perspective. Retrieved March 03, 2016, from

[14] Nye, D.E. 2001. Consuming Power: A Social History of American Energies. The MIT Press: Cambridge, MA.

[15] Rowe, C. (2013). Coal Mining On Navajo Nation In Arizona Takes Heavy Toll (PHOTOS). The Huffington Post. Retrieved April 17, 2016, from

[16] Magill, B. (2014, June 17). Some Of The Country’s Dirtiest Power Plants Could Be Exempt From Obama’s Clean Power Plan. The Huffington Post. Retrieved April 17, 2016, from

[17] Curwood and Lustgarten (2015).

[18] Hamilton, B. (2016). Navajo Nation Sues EPA over Pollution from Navajo Generating Station. The Kentucky Journal. Retrieved April 17, 2016, from

[19] Horseherder (2014).

[20] United States Environmental Protection Agency. (n.d.). Air Markets Program Data. Retrieved April 21, 2016, from

[21] U.S. Energy Information Administration. (2015). Arizona Profile Analysis. State Profile and Energy Estimates. Retrieved March 03, 2016,from

[22] Curwood and Lustgarten (2015).



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