#231 - How to Make a Clean Energy Transition that Benefits All, with Brett Isaac of Navajo Power

June 28, 2022

#231 - How to Make a Clean Energy Transition that Benefits All, with Brett Isaac of Navajo Power
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Navajo Power is a native-owned public benefit corporation that has the vision to bring clean energy to communities in a different way.


There are different ways to generate power and electricity, one being coal mining. But this method has a significant environmental impact, such as soil erosion, loss of natural habitat, and pollution. 

After Brett came home from college, his community decided it was time to start a transition. They chose Brett to help build a company that provides clean energy, benefits the livelihood of the local community, and lessens the impact of climate change.

Brett Isaac is a renewable energy entrepreneur, business strategist, and the Founder and Co-CEO at Navajo Power, a native-owned public benefit corporation that develops utility-scale clean energy projects on tribal lands and maximizes the benefits for the local communities. 

Brett is a member of the Navajo Nation and a skilled communicator who has worked with and collaborated with the local community to have an equitable and sustainable clean energy transition.

Navajo Power has the vision to bring clean energy to communities in a different way. They work intentionally to bring and maintain power to households with sustainable, clean energy. To date, they have deployed over 200 off-grid solar systems to serve households without grid electricity.

In this episode, Cory and Brett talk about making a transition to clean and equitable energy. Brett shares his foundational interest in power, particularly in clean energy, the struggles making the transition, the issues of equity, power structure and system, and the impact of the transition on the livelihood and welfare of the local community.

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🗣 TOPICS DISCUSSED:

  • What led Brett to become interested in clean energy
  • The community transition from coal mining to clean energy
  • How Brett honed his entrepreneurial spirit and skills
  • The community challenges in the process of transition 
  • Navajo Power’s move in addressing the energy access issues
  • Brett’s intentions and purpose for taking the leadership role in Navajo Power
  • The beauty of having collaborative efforts in facing difficulties
  • How Navajo Power gains momentum as a solution for numerous environmental and community issues
  • Navajo Power’s standard in setting equitable clean energy as a provider
  • The importance of taking care of the community and making an impact

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Transcript

Cory Ames  0:00  
Before we jump into this episode of the social entrepreneurship and innovation podcast, here's a quick word from our sponsor. The Greater Good Book is a call to action for everyday people, particularly women, or others who may feel excluded from the traditional entrepreneurial stereotype, to build businesses and initiatives that make a difference. Award winning social entrepreneur Madeleine Shaw paints a compelling portrait of an emerging group of changemakers, mostly female, diverse and social impact focused. This cohort is the future of entrepreneurship, Shaw says - people who are motivated by the desire to fix problems and make the world a better place, not just making a monetary profit. Most books on entrepreneurship focus on scaling fast and achieving celebrity status. In contrast, The Greater Good takes a more personal look at how people can tap into their sense of purpose to change the world, uncovering the emotional drive within each of us to fulfill our dreams. The book is a source of inspiration and encouragement in a practical resource for starting and running a successful project business or nonprofit organization, written in language that resonates with mission driven individuals who may not relate to the tone of traditional business books. Check out The Greater Good: Social Entrepreneurship for Everyday People at greatergood dot work. That's greatergood.work.

Brett Isaac  1:35  
I always wanted to go home with some sort of resource to be able to help. And from the university experience, you know, I learned about networking, I learned about leadership. But what I really studied was what was the federal nexus to creating our tribes, what was the economic reasoning. And in terms of policy, what was kind of holding us back. And I fortunately, because of like my family's position, when I got home, I was able to like put a lot of those thoughts and theories into practice.

Cory Ames  2:07  
Hey, y'all, Cory here with the social entrepreneurship and innovation podcast, as always so grateful to have you listening in. Today's episode, I'm speaking with Brett Isaac, the founder and CEO of Navajo Power. Together, Brett and I are discussing how we make a clean and equitable energy transition. Brett is a member of the Navajo Nation and has worked with local chapters in the nation to execute on numerous community development initiatives. He's collaborated with the Navajo community of Shonto in the development of community owned enterprises, leading to the creation of a solar company on the nation, called Shonto energy. Brett's company, Navajo Power, has deployed over 200 off grid solar systems to serve households without grid electricity. 

Brett and I talk about his origins and interests into power and clean energy in particular. We talk about the challenges that he's foreseen with the clean energy transition, now and into the future, both in the scale and scope of how much wattage is necessary just in, you know, his region, the Southwest, and as well beyond. We talk about the issues of equity, how we can't just swap out our energy sources without changing the power structures, the systems at play, so that we ensure the energy transition to come - and that's taking place now - is not just a clean one, one that's powered by as great a quantity of renewables as possible to power our grids, our homes. But as well, it's a transition that's a just one, an equitable one, and a fair one. And I think that Navajo Power offers an extremely interesting and compelling model of what a provider who's considering, and in fact, actually part of, the local stakeholder community can look like. 

So, Brett is a skilled communicator, and that clearly seems to benefit him in this line of work, in the space of of utility. There's many stakeholders that need to be considered and spoken with. And so I'm excited for you to get into this conversation I had with Brett. I'm sure you will enjoy it. But before we dive in, I want to invite you to sign up for my Better World Weekly newsletter, newsletter I write and publish myself, send out every single Monday to our community of changemakers and innovators from all sectors all over the globe. Go to growensemble.com backslash newsletter to get the next one in your inbox - that is growensemble.com backslash newsletter. Alright y'all. Without further ado, here is Brett Isaac, the founder and CEO of Navajo Power.

Brett Isaac  5:08  
Thank you for having me. My name is Brett Isaac, I am a founder and the Executive Chairman of Navajo Power, a member of the Navajo Nation, for my my Navajo relatives: <speaks in Navajo>. For those non Navajo speakers, I just introduced my clan. So if there's relatives out there, they know they're related.

Cory Ames  5:33  
Well, I'd love to start Brett with how your origins into clean energy began. I think you've been in this space for over a decade now or so, maybe even more than that, to my knowledge, but I'd love to hear what had you interested in power and clean energy specifically, and what got you started?

Brett Isaac  5:52  
I always feel like I was born in the shadow of a coal mine. You know, the reason that I grew up in coal was the economic driver. And so my family and relatives either worked at the coal mine, or the coal plant, or you know, did something kind of auxiliary to it. But after college, getting home, one of the tasks that was really highlighted was one: we're really reliant on that economy being present. And there's a lot of discussion around transition and eventual closure of the coal mining and coal plant, which subsequently have closed. The other thing being the challenges that we're facing locally in terms of energy access. And so my dad's community kind of came up with the idea of putting together an off grid company. And I just happened to walk right in when they needed someone to run, you know, run the plan through through the wringer. 

And, essentially, you know, put together my first off grid company when I was about, like, maybe 25, trying to use a local resources, you know, build things. I grew up in an area where it wasn't easy to just go down to the hardware store and pick up equipment. So solar has always been like that. The technology's been, in some ways, a little too expensive, you know, panels were very expensive back 10 years ago, as was access to capital. And so logistically, I had to figure out a lot of those things and how to pair them with energy access economic development, and then just make them profitable. Because we can't do things unless there's a return or there's a lot of downtime in between waiting funding cycles. And so my foray into it was essentially, because there was a need for energy and a need for diversification.

Cory Ames  7:39  
What was the conversation like, within your family, and maybe your, you know, any of their friends or community members involved in the coal power sector? What was the conversation like around the transition?

Brett Isaac  7:53  
A lot of times, it was a bit, you know, contentious in terms of, you know-- although like, back then I wasn't directly competing with, you know, the power plants at the time, but they saw the transition as somewhat of a threat to their livelihood. I have a relative who, out of high school, got a job at the coal mine, and never had another, you know, position anywhere else. And so his likelihood, definitely, his track record, his history was tied to it. And, you know, I think for them, I understood the scarcity. But I also knew that that scarcity would eventually be met with market forces we couldn't control. And so, although I knew that, you know, there may have been painful conversations at family gatherings, it was really important to express that, you know, this is about trying to find other options and alternatives to what we're doing, not about trying to challenge the existing systems. 

And for them, I think it took a little while, but eventually, and now, you know, they're very supportive of my work, because they realize what those economies were like. We were kind of living on borrowed time, you know, like, there was always this, like, presence that, you know, I kind of at the time referred to it a bit as like, we were a bit imprisoned by the economies at that point. Meaning that when, you know, coal was down, our communities were down. When, you know, we had regulatory, you know, threat, they use the unions and the localized communities to kind of vocalize against them, not realizing like the interest of the transition, was actually an opportunity for our communities to build their own capacity. Because the other challenge was in those companies, I never saw our communities rising to the levels of leadership. You know, in the Peabody Westerns of the world, you don't see Navajos in the C suite, which I always felt was another barrier in terms of being able to control our vision was, you know, the economies were being kind of managed by external forces, which really felt inorganic today.

Cory Ames  10:09  
Certainly something that seems like, on the global scale, is quite present in our modern day conversation around the news. And so I guess the transition perhaps, continued, and you mentioned that the coal plant has since been shut down. Sounds like your family had some hand in starting a new projects out of that, as you mentioned, your dad with the interest in the off grid company. What is the circumstance for the community, now, that you grew up in? Do you feel like those jobs have, you know, maybe not one for one, the exact people that worked there and now work, you know, in clean energy, but do you feel like there's been a sensible transition, and reasonable transition for the community with, you know, economic opportunity, with the new energy transition?

Brett Isaac  10:53  
I think that's yet to be realized. One of the things that kind of, unfortunately, happened is, you know, I think a lot of our members and our leaders went down with the ship. They, until the final hour, were trying to negotiate deals and held on to like, some sort of hope. Now, we know for certain, like, the certainty is probably the best thing that could have happened. Because it really put to bed, the idea that some revival was going to be the economic, you know, savior, for our communities. And instead, what people are working on now is diversification, in terms of, you know, I've seen a lot of people come out of their mine operations to start businesses, to start tourism, to go into alternative industries that are, you know, a little bit more entrepreneurial in the region. 

And so, you know, unfortunately COVID and the pandemic had another blow to give to the communities. But I think the resiliency of the people is really about trying to find options that fit the lifestyle, you know. We're very traditional, and in terms of like, we live in a rural community, growth is not something that we're looking at in terms of Metropolis. It's more about, you know, gaining good, sustainable employment that ensures that, one: our family nucleuses can stay closer to home. Because regardless of even like having a job in your community, that job could be a 40 mile commute one way, and that's considered reasonable. So, you know, there does need to be some more additional work. And one of the things I guess I'm a little critical of the transition is like, there was a lot of discussion as how do we help. 

I think there was a lot of conversation to push coal off the ledge, but there hasn't been a lot to actually, like, ensure those families impacted landed safely. A lot of them had to leave the region. We definitely saw a decline in, you know, local participation and community engagement just because they had to go and seek jobs elsewhere. I think, though, that there is optimism that, you know, the recovery be a little bit more beneficial to the communities because we own the positions going forward. And we didn't own those coal mines, we didn't own the coal plant. Those weren't our decisions to close or to keep open. But we definitely held on to them, like they were the only thing we had. And I kept saying, you know, I don't like that feeling, you know, because it feels like we're kind of entrapped to someone else's wishes. So I think it was necessary but also the same time, you know, working hard to try to replace those jobs has become somewhat of a personal goal.

Cory Ames  13:45  
Very excited to dive deeper into that as as we move forward in this chat. But, Brett, I'm curious to hear a bit more about what your dad is like. I mean, taking it on to start an off grid company himself and inviting you along for the ride there. Sounds like you have some entrepreneurial spirit and ambition in your genetics. I'd love to hear more about what about him and maybe your your family that has that makes so much sense.

Brett Isaac  14:13  
Well, you know, my dad always had a side hustle. Growing up, like, he had a job and then we did things on the weekends. He was a heavy equipment operator, a foreman by his nine to five, but during the weekends, you know, we would do fabric welding and fabrication or do some sort of like side hustle. He was also a horseman, so we had livestock and animals. So I grew up in a very, like blue collar, you know, setting where, you know, once I was old enough to hold a flashlight, I had a job. And from that, I learned a lot of skills, which really helped me when the time came to start companies to really think about, well, how much of this do I actually know and what kind of resources do I have? That was a big part. 

My father has since passed, you know, he actually passed when I first started this company. But, you know, I find that his spirit, in terms of what I saw and resiliency in him, is what I see in a lot of the people. And one of the things I always kind of thought about is, if he had the same access to educational resources I did, he would have been a tremendous executive and leader. But one of the facts of the matters is that our communities, although they were, you know, used for economic gain of a lot of, you know, metropolises is across the Southwest, one of the things that's been limited is access to these communities to gain, you know, the advantage of, like, access to financial capacity and access to entrepreneurial accelerators and resources. So it's like, although he had the basics of like, how to, you know, bring in resources and revenues, he just didn't have like the access to things that I'm fortunate and blessed to be able to have. That has helped me accelerate Navajo Power to its position that it's in right now.

Cory Ames  16:06  
Wow. Well, I'm so sorry to hear about your father's passing, but it seems like you are keeping his spirit really kind of close at bay in guiding you forward. Well, so what are some of those specifics in the things that you know, elements of support or resources? I know you went to Arizona State University, perhaps maybe that's somewhere where you got a lot of useful information and guidance. What's, you know, been specifically intangibly helpful for you, you feel like in this experience of starting companies?

Brett Isaac  16:36  
Yeah, I think, you know, being a Sun Devil, that was definitely the first access point because of one: the, you know, the experience I got, you know, going to college, when you're an indigenous kid is kind of bit of a shell shock. You're a fish out of water, is what they say, because you're coming from a very rural community, to one of the largest universities in the country, and it's very difficult to kind of find your place. A lot of our students tend to struggle because they're not in a setting where they get that level of support that they're used to being back home. 

For me, I was fortunate to find a few mentors, and a few friends that definitely kept me through, kept me motivated to actually finish. But one of like, the other defining factors for me was I knew that I always wanted to go home with some sort of resource to be able to help. And from the university experience, I learned about networking, and I learned about leadership. But what I really studied was what was the like federal nexus to creating our tribes? What was the economic reasoning, and in terms of policy, what was kind of holding us back? And I, fortunately, because of like, my family's position, when I got home, was able to like, put a lot of those thoughts and theories into practice. 

I started working with a nonprofit that was a community development corporation, and we got to really analyze policy at a local level, and implement some ideas. The current president to the Navajo Nation is Jonathan Nez, he's from the community Shonto, and he was a local leader, a local delegate, when I returned back from college. He had a great vision for what he wanted to see in that community. Working with my dad, they, in tandem, kind of put together a lot of opportunities that then were handed to me to carry out. I got a project management job, and essentially, kind of did a lot of the foundational work, which gave me exposure to a lot of like, rooms and networks that I would never have access to. But also to see like the direct impacts of economic development, and how some of those, like shifting narratives around transition and economy, were just buzzwords at the time, and not really being put into practice, because there was a lot of federal advocacy for putting dollars into it, but not a lot of champion building. 

You know, although there can be great plans, you still need people who can execute them. And part of the challenge we have in some of our communities, especially transition ones, is the talent drain that happens when the economy's can afford, you know, people to come in and help rebuild and reshape and retool the economic drivers of those communities. And so that was something I witnessed very, very early was like, I was the only one kind of doing the work and there was, there was a lot of people shouting like, this is what we should do and giving options, but there wasn't a lot of people getting, you know, into the nitty gritty, dirty work that was required, one: to to face the challenge head on, but also to begin implementing plans in terms of looking at different businesses and trying things like getting into the clean energy space and seeing whether it was a fit for the communities. 

Because even at that time, we had a skepticism that energy could still be weaponized against our communities as it had in the past. Regardless of who does the work, it seems like they tend to migrate, you know, like those same companies that were in uranium, that were in coal mining, that were in gas and oil, they have their stickers on the back of solar panels now. And so we wanted to make sure that if they were going to come back again, they didn't, again, commit the same missteps that they did in the past, and our communities were better prepared for them.

Cory Ames  20:41  
So it ultimately seems with the founding of Navajo Power, that you've come around to the idea that the Clean Energy is a fit for your community. And so I'd love to hear what sort of conclusions or understandings do you feel like you came to leading up to the very beginnings of Navajo Power, even the conception of the company, that it seemed like the right time and the right fit?

Brett Isaac  21:07  
Yeah, I think, you know, first, like, I had been doing the Energy Access Challenge for a number of years. But, you know, one of the things that I kind of found was just entrepreneurship in that, in that kind of scale, felt like a Rambo mission - it was me against the world kind of thing. Because I had to raise money, build the systems, work with clients, like it was just very hard to coordinate all those things together because scale was an issue. Like, one thing I always kind of, you know, promote about the idea of solar is, its entry level is very scalable. You don't have to build, you know, 100 megawatt power plant, you know, to get into solar. You can start with one panel, one battery, and one home, or even your RV, or, you know, a solar phone charger. 

There's so many levels that you can enter in that it was one: it's not as prohibitive in terms of like, you know, if you have access to certain resources - you can enter into it. But it does scale when it comes to trying to deploy it on, you know, I guess I'll call it a influential level, because you need to be able to sustain momentum in, you know, your activity. So that one: it builds the foundation of support, you know, that warrants some form of, you know, buy in from community, buy in from regulatory and policy. Because if it's just one off, it's one project, and then everyone leaves, and we don't ever talk about it again. But if it's replicable, then it becomes something that, you know, is what movements are built on that kind of shifts economies and shifts conversations around opportunity. 

And so at the time of like, I'll say, like, five or six years into my clean energy experience, I had another-- my Jewish brother, a kid named Dan Rosen that, we're about the same age, you know, he's from New Jersey, but he had spent some time in Navajo learning about our water and energy challenges. And we always kept in touch. He left to the bay, to do the Silicon Valley startup thing, he started a company called Mosaic. While I was back on, you know, on Navajo doing Shonto Energy and these other projects that are, you know, work in the energy access, we always tried to get together to figure out how to address the Energy Access Challenge. How do we get more people power? How do we get more people clean water? 

And what ended up happening is when the transition talks were being discussed, you know, we had kind of gotten our companies to a place where like, we were a little burned out with what were doing. Now, let's talk about something a little different. So there's a ceremony we're at, in the community of Shonto, where the middle of the night we're watching the fire, and we started getting the talking about, you know, large scale development and why not us. And what was interesting is like, there's a train in the middle-- at the time, the coal plant was running coal, you know, to Navajo Generating Station, and we can see the train kind of going down the middle of the valley, middle of the night, and we're like, "man, if we don't get involved in this discussion, we don't have a say whether or not it's beneficial to our communities. And this plant will close and our community will feel the impacts, but they're going to build something else somewhere else. And if we want to hold these one companies and, you know, institutions accountable, like it's got to be under our own control." 

And so, we reached out to a few initial investors and we cited a few initial projects and brought in and recruited you know, a very strategic team of like minded and experienced folks to get what Navajo Power vision was. Which is we wanted to bring clean energy to communities in a different way. We wanted to be inclusive, but also working on this idea of community benefits. And what we've come to realize is that Navajo Power, you know, envisions success with communities, you know, in terms of like, although there's expectation that they have to be profitable, profit isn't the driver. What's the driver is what the legacy is of these projects, because that's what we saw missing from coal. When they picked up those smokestacks, when they, you know, covered up those coal mines, the legacy it leaves behind, is just fractured community. 

And that felt to us very, you know, just, again, problematic, and we didn't want solar or wind or whatever clean tech we could bring, to have the same effect because our communities have been traumatized enough. And so we thought, okay, well, how do we get involved? And so it really started with bringing together a lot of allies who had been kind of advising the space very, you know, seasoned people like Danny Kennedy at New Energy Nexus, to say, Okay, can you get us into certain rooms? Because we know we can talk about this, we can build, again, a movement, but also a very, like, intentional business model that highlights the need for taking care of communities first, where you impact and then exporting power.

Cory Ames  26:34  
I think what you mentioned there is critically important of some of these different distinctions of actually what it means to be a socially, environmentally responsible and sustainable business. The business and, you know, as a product of that, the profit, is really just the mechanism and the tool, you know, that's at play. What is the core purpose, you know, what are the outcomes, the results that you're looking for, especially, as you mentioned, with Navajo Power? That's actually what should be the primary driver. You know, that sort of legacy, as you mentioned it, there for the community that y'all are working in. 

Brett, I'm curious, is there some sort of particular significance to you to being at the helm as the CEO and one of these founders? You mentioned earlier, the serious purpose that you get out of, you know, being in the business of creating really impactful, sustainable livelihoods for members of your community. Is there a particular significance to you to being in this position, in this role?

Brett Isaac  27:28  
Yeah, I mean, I think for me, one of my critical points was looking at energy companies, even the ones that were tribally created - they're always managed by external parties. Like, I'm a Navajo kid watching, you know, these companies being led by, you know, essentially white guys from outside of our communities, making big decisions on behalf of Navajo employees and Navajo livelihood. And I always felt like a disconnect in terms of like, why isn't someone I know in those positions? You know, for all the decades of service, for all the different contributions that we've made, why haven't Navajos ascended to the C levels, the C suites of these different companies? And part of it I kind of felt, one was just, you know, that ceiling had yet to be really broken. But the other part was just really showcased who was controlling, you know, again, our economies. 

And so for me being in this position was intentional for a few reasons. One of them is, like, I wanted our youth to see, you know, what leadership could look like, what what we could do. Even though you're born in a place that's very rural, and you don't have access to the traditional resources that most Americans enjoy, you know-- where my family's from didn't have running water until maybe like five or six years ago. So my first couple of businesses, we had to haul in water. And, you know, that was some part of the day that me and my employees had to figure out. But, you know, those kinds of things, they instill a bit of like resiliency, but also, you know, some degree of strength around, like, your intention. So the purpose is pure. And for me, like-- it's not like I was critical of the people who are leading our companies, I think they had great hearts. But I think their rationale for why they were doing what they were doing, wasn't relatable to someone who grew up in-- [cuts out briefly].

Cory Ames  29:36  
I think that's an important separation between the individual and maybe the systems and the structures at play. You know, as you mentioned, you know, perhaps the individuals had good hearts, but if we have systems and structures, you know, economically or socially or whatever set up, we're going to see a particular set of outcomes, where that driver is profit. And then when that's not available, and coal is not a feasible energy source anymore for whatever reason, environmental sustainability, or it's just run out in the area, there's there's not much concern of what's being left behind. 

Well, I think that speaks to a lot, Brett. And I'd love to transition a little bit to some of the the tactical and kind of strategic perspective that you have you with Navajo Power. As to you know, we're we're all thinking about this clean energy transition here in the US - and I mean, obviously, globally, as well - but particular to what you see as your purview as the the challenges, the kind of scale and the scope of the transition that's necessary in the southwest region, how are you seeing your kind of largest challenges and barriers starting to-- or initially stacked up into us getting the clean energy transition that we need?

Brett Isaac  30:48  
One of the things that, if we get down to the numbers, is we realized, there's going to be a closure of, you know, a few dozen gigawatts of coal resources on tribal lands. Directly replacing those is important. But the challenge is, we know the conversion, the transition of a lot of our current energy resources, is going to put a strain on the western grid system, as well as the communities that had relied on these traditional fossil fuel technologies. What I kind of envision in terms of like, the need and kind of desire for Navajo Power's position, if we're going to get to these targets by the time we need to get to them, we got to be collaborative. 

And, you know, there's never been a push like this in the past in terms of like, we've never had to convert one of our systems this quickly, because of the impacts of what things like climate change, and also the impacts of that climate on the economies are very intertwined. And so the collaborative nature means that, like regulatory and business have to kind of work at the same speed. And so getting that, you know, those communities ready is going to require a big lift. Because we know government doesn't always move the way it should, and also, it's influenced by a lot of external factors. 

But what's really happening, though, is the markets are showing, you know, that, wind and solar and other clean technologies are definitely meeting the challenge that they weren't supposed to meet. They were supposed to be too expensive, I mean, even the discussion today is, well, they're intermittent, and, you know, the sun doesn't shine 24 hours a day. But that's not the first knock against solar, you know, used to be that it was too expensive. Now, it's half the cost of coal. It used to be that it was prohibitive - and we're facing some unique challenges in that market, in terms of, we still need to clean up the way that we procure modules, and who makes the modules and what we're doing in terms of, we're not just passing on trauma to other communities, because we want a cheap product. 

I've always felt like energy will go the way that food has gone. Meaning that, you know, we love our local producers, because, you know, buying something from them, recycles economy, but also we know who grows it, we know where it's from, and we have a sense of like, knowledge that it was done ethically. One of the things about energy in the indigenous experience, is we always felt like sacrifice zones. We always felt like, in order to build a metropolis like Los Angeles, or Las Vegas, someone had to subsidize. And it fell a lot on rural communities in the West, who, you know, had no decision whether or not you know, they wanted to continue to support that. 

So I think there has to be a conversation around making sure that transition is equitable to those communities. But also that, you know, when we cite opportunities, we look at replenishing those places with those types of work, like manufacturing, and production. I mean, we're having such a large conversation now about the West and the grid system. It was built for one purpose, like to get electrons to those metropolises, and now we're realizing there's people that live beyond those metropolises, so how are they going to get service? And it works kind of that way, which is the economic centers are dictating you know what type of energy they want. And as they keep influencing that market, you know, the power producers like us have to figure out how to intertwine our opportunities into their planning. 

I think a unique priority that Navajo Power is kind of placing is that, you know, we know how to probably get to like 50%, you know, power with just what we have today. But with the conversion, again, of our systems to all electric away from fossil fuel sources, it's just going to increase the need. So the closure of a couple of dozen gigawatts of coal is the small conversation of the increase of the gigawatts we're going to need to convert our vehicles to EVs, to convert our appliances to electric - to essentially modernize our system in the West. 

And I feel like that's the important conversation where tribal opportunities, as well as Navajo Power, can help facilitate those, because one other element that's fighting against us is land access. I think all the easy, accessible, developable projects around those metropolises are taken up, and the growth of the West and the shortage of water - like, there's all these factors that I wake up and think about, okay, well, what can Navajo Power do to help with these things? Those are all adding into the element of why we're starting today, and getting projects ready for the near future. 

Unless we have opportunities and pilots to work off of, they will be cited somewhere else, and there'll be some other opportunity. But fortunately, what I think is, we have a bit more of a control as a country in terms of what we want to do. And again, we're willing to pay a little extra, if we know where it's coming from, and if we know that we're citing things specifically. And you know, food security is a good indicator of that, where, the priority now is to understand what we're eating and where we're getting it from, versus just trying to get the lowest cost possible and we're not verifying where it comes from, or whether it's safe.

Cory Ames  37:18  
I think that's a really good comparison to think through. Do you feel like Navajo Power is getting the pilots in the opportunities to have the momentum that you need to be well placed to be a provider, and a solution for many of these problems that you just listed there: land, water or otherwise?

Brett Isaac  37:37  
I think so. Because one of the challenges to citing these resources, is proof of concept. Again, people love to talk theory, but to get actual work done and to have like tangible assets is really the name of the game when it comes to development. You look at all these funding opportunities that are kind of rolling through from the federal level, really, what they're targeted at, is continuation of existing projects. If those projects don't have the initial feasibility and viability, the funding just exhausts and goes back in the pot. 

And the tribes are like, "Well, what happened, there was money available?" it's like, well, we have to invest to a certain stage. And that's what Navajo Power believes is the most important piece, is we have to get kind of up off the ground. We can't just say, oh, I want to do this, and then all of a sudden, someone will put money forward. It's like, no, we got to put together the legwork to really point our position, in terms of like, being intentional, developing these projects. We have, right now, about, you know, one and a half gigawatts, a little more than that, just on the Navajo Nation that we've been working on for the last few years. 

We have one project, which is kind of in public, which is this 750 megawatts solar plus battery storage project located in an area that used to service the entire Southwest. The coal plant up the road was owned by the City of LA, Arizona Public Service, The Salt River Project, Two Zone Electric Power. So it's like, we know the markets have the ability to procure power, they just needed something to prove that we can cite structure and make a market-competitive project on tribal lands. And we knew we needed to get there because, although we can talk responsibility, without some sort of pilot in place, some sort of project to point to or some sort of tangible thing to talk about, we can talk accountability all day long, and people can make commitments and come up with their buzzwords and phrases, and then just say, well, there was nothing there. So we're gonna keep moving. And I've seen it happen time and time again. 

So like, the real kind of take-to-task is we've got to get these communities ready with viable projects in hand, and that's the way we will participate. Because I think of it as, it's not a matter of IF, it's a matter of when. The need is going to be that great in terms of what energy resources are needed in the West, and what energy resources will be needed nationally.

Cory Ames  40:21  
Absolutely. Yeah. I mean, that's an ever present and impending conversation. It seems like it's changing shape week after week, if not day after day right now. Well, Brett, I'm really curious to hear a bit more as to how Navajo Power, as a business model, is managing and perhaps setting a standard for what a more equitable, clean energy transition looks like, from a provider? Just the overarching, as an example, y'all are a public benefit corporation. I'd love to hear what's the significance of that to y'all as a provider, and perhaps, you know, what sort of kind of trickle down principles or themes or things of importance stand out to y'all and how you operate the business and see, to continue to expand and grow the model?

Brett Isaac  41:09  
I think one of our main principles is like, there used to be a top down approach to development. We always look at the pyramid, it was always where the developer, where the money, you know, this is what we're going to offer, you know, take it or we're moving next door. And I've always felt that was, you know, a bit, you know, one, just aggressive, but, the others, it didn't build buy in to the need for what our economies could look like with opportunity. We want more people engaged, not more people upset in the tactic. 

So we work very intentionally on what we call a grassroots level up approach, which is we engage community as a whole, because one thing about government right now, as polarizing as it is, is, you know, participation is really about trying to be inclusive. No matter the stance or the situation, opportunities should be party-less. It should be about everyone gaining something from-- at least having the option to participate, and the option to have a voice. And I think that's something that's been a bit missing in this conversation, because there's a lot of pointing fingers back and forth. 

And our approach really, is when we look at the impact of our projects, we look at two factors: one is just the, you know, what is our project going to do to the local region, whether it's land usage, what kind of resources can it bring? The other is envisioning success with them in terms of like, what are their metrics for what they see a project like this doing? We want it to be disruptive in that space, because we knew most developers come in with a dollar figure, and kind of a take it or leave it attitude. What we wanted to do is show them, like a bit more transparently, "Well, this is what the market can bear. What do you want to do with this? What do you see as being like the reason?" And you start to find out, it's not so much about, like, oh, we need X amount of lease payments and X amount of dollars. It's that, you know, we want jobs, or we want to invest in water infrastructure. 

So success looks very different, depending on the community. The other thing that I always kind of explain is a lot of our communities have never seen their land from a map view. So like, no one owns helicopters, or routinely flies over the land. So we show people a map, like, they don't really understand even what they're looking at. So you got to go back on back to the ground, walk around with them get the history of the location, so that they actually understand what you're talking about. 

There's been an interpretive barrier in the development of these projects for a while, which creates that hostility, even in solar. I've driven by plenty of solar farms, to see their neighbors bad mouthing the project or the company to know that, like, we can't keep doing that and expecting people to believe in their transition, to believe that clean energy is any better than what has come before us. We gotta be better about that. And so Navajo Power's initiative, really, is to set the standard on community engagement. We can do better than just offering dollars. 

We have access to certain types of expertise and guidance that we can extend to our communities so that they can replicate the development model to build something they're passionate about, whether it be like they want a school or community center, they can look at how we acquired land, how we financed it, use the momentum of our economic impact to build upon what we envision as success. And I fully believe that's how holistic we have to think about energy transition is. Anyone can put up solar panels, that's kind of a given. But can you do it while maintaining a high level of popularity, that your panels are contributing back to the people? Or are they just benefiting a select few? 

So the challenge I've kind of put in front of our team and in front of, I guess, our industry, is how do we be better because that's what the market demands of us if we're going to continue to build at the scale and pace that is required to meet these resource challenges that we're going to be facing?

Cory Ames  45:56  
Wow, I mean, just thinking through the different kind of stakeholder communication that needs to be done as a provider, as a business in this space, it's different than say, someone who's selling a consumer product, like a T shirt, as an example. The level of communication and on the ground, as you mentioned there, speaking to residents, perhaps walking properties, you know, walking in community land. It's a whole different level of, I don't know, intricacies and relationships that it seems you have have to navigate. But it seems like you personally, Brett, and Navajo Power are well positioned and well skilled to do so. But I do appreciate you spending so much time with me here this morning. Before we wrap up, I'd love to ask a few rapid fire questions you mind if I get after them? 

Brett Isaac  48:26
Sure, let's do it.

Cory Ames  48:27
Hey, y'all, Cory here, we're gonna take a quick break to hear a word from our sponsor. Being an entrepreneur is tough, especially when trying to run a business in a socially and environmentally conscious way. Having a community striving for the same type of impact makes the process easier, and knowing that others are reaching for the same goals is incredibly motivating. That's why our friends at Oliver Russell created the Social Good Network. The Social Good Network is designed to connect socially minded entrepreneurs and their employees with the community and tools they need to grow. The testimonials and reach that they've already seen have reiterated how much of a need there was for a community like the Social Good Network. They've seen heartwarming testimonials, one on one connections and engagement from over 10 countries so far. Visit SocialGoodNetwork.com to create your profile today. Again, that's socialgoodnetwork.com. 

All right, so first one for you. What's one book, film, or maybe other resource that you might recommend to our listeners? Something that's either impacted you recently, or you always come back to? And it can be about the subject matter we've talked about today, or out of the park, so don't don't hold back.

Brett Isaac  48:10  
I would say one book I recommend to our team members when they join Navajo Power is Blood and Thunder, and it's about Carson and the Navajos. So it's a bit of history, but also, what kind of laid the foundation for the relationships in the Southwest.

Cory Ames  48:26  
Excellent recommendation. Next one for you, are there any particular morning routines or daily habits that you absolutely have to stick to?

Brett Isaac  48:35  
Working out. Lifting weights has been something I've done since I was a little kid. And it's something I find passion in, but also, I always say, if you're gonna work in some of these areas, you have to be not only mentally strong, but physically as well.

Cory Ames  48:53  
Awesome. And then a last one for you, Brett, maybe not so rapid fire. What's one piece of advice that you might leave our listeners with? These folks are change makers and innovators from all sectors all over the globe, looking to leave the world a better place than they found it. 

Brett Isaac  49:09  
One piece of advice that always sticks out to me that a really seasoned developer said is, projects will die 1000 times before they succeed, so don't lose hope when things look a little bleak or tough. And, you know, there's a discipline to what we're doing to contribute to the transition. And staying the course is about you know, just having faith when it's dark and also, you know, celebrating our wins when we get them. We need to be appreciative of how far we've come as well as optimistic about how far we can go.

Cory Ames  49:45  
Really important sentiment to leave us with. I'm going to take that with me on the rest of my day here. Thanks so much Brett - final, final item, where's the best place to to keep up with you and follow along with Navajo Power?

Brett Isaac  49:58  
navajopower.com, we have an Instagram page, @navajopower1, and you can look me up on LinkedIn. Just look up Brett Isaac, and I love to meet a lot of the movers and shakers. So I really appreciate you inviting me to speak here today.

Cory Ames  50:19  
Well, thanks again for taking the time really my pleasure. And we'll have all things linked up in our show post at growensemble.com and socialentrepreneurship.fm. Brett, thank you once again, I really appreciate it.

All right, y'all. That's a wrap on another episode of the social entrepreneurship and innovation podcast. As always so grateful to have you listening in. If you love the show, please leave us a review on Apple podcasts or hit subscribe wherever it is that you get yours. And as well. I want to invite you to sign up for our Better World Weekly newsletter. This is our weekly discussion with our community of social entrepreneurs and changemakers on all things building a better world does the newsletter I write and publish send out myself every single Monday go to growensemble.com backslash newsletter, to join in on that discussion, all things building a better world. Go to growensemble.com backslash newsletter to get the next one in your inbox. And finally, if you know of a company work within a company or run a company that might be interested in sponsoring the social entrepreneurship and innovation podcast, we always love starting conversations with potential partners who share our vision of building a better world together. Go to socialentrepreneurship.fm backslash contact. There, you can fill out a quick form, start that conversation with us. And these sorts of partnerships fuel our mission to build a better world together. All right, y'all. Until next time.

Brett Isaac Profile Photo

Brett Isaac

Founder & Co-CEO

Brett Isaac is a member of the Navajo Nation and has worked with local chapters in the Nation to execute on numerous community development initiatives. Brett collaborated with the Navajo Community of Shonto in the development of Community Owned enterprises leading to the creation of a solar company on the Nation called Shonto Energy.

Brett’s company has deployed over 200 off-grid solar systems to serve households without grid electricity. Brett is a Founder and Co-CEO at Navajo Power.