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15,000 Native American families live without electricity. How can solar power help?

AZ Central

Their 17-by-65-feet house with a single room is two and a half miles off the roadway. The closest neighbors live 5 miles away. The nearest town, 25 miles.

But the Taylors have plenty to keep them busy.

The husband and wife duo, members of the Hopi tribe, spend their days watching over their 25 cattle that graze the land. A couple of horses also run around the homestead.

They grow crops with dry farming techniques out in the fields and some produce in a small garden. A rain catchment system collects water for drinking. Raised cattle also function as subsistence and business.

“We have really learned how to try to work with what we have,” Catherin Taylor said.

But for long, the couple couldn’t work their way around lighting their home when it got dark or enjoying simple comforts of modern technology like brewing coffee. Their home did not have electricity.

Indigenous people have lived self-sufficient lifestyles for thousands of years. But the United States’ wider public-policy structures often overlooked the people living on Native American reservations and ancestral lands.

“That’s the way it has to be, because they have no other alternatives,” said Walter Haase, general manager of Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, said about the situation of Native tribes. “We’re one of the richest countries in the world. We really need to take care of our own people, especially our first people – the people that were here to begin with.”

Even after years of legislative push, large swaths of Native American localities still lack access to electricity. More than 15,000 Hopi and Navajo households live without electricity, according to officials.

Now, crowdsourced and community-level efforts are leading the way in providing reliable energy sources to native homes.

Light for reading, arts and crafts

Max Taylor grew up without running electricity all through his life. His wife, Catherin, used to drive to Flagstaff, an almost 50-mile journey south, just to iron their clothes.

“People live out in rural communities, real rural, off-the-grid kind of communities,” she said. “People who don’t live in those areas take for granted what they have.”

For the first time this summer, the Taylor household flicked a switch to lighten their house. There’s a TV they can watch now as they wake up to coffee pouring in an electric machine.

Native Renewables, a Flagstaff-based nonprofit, installed and wired their home to a solar energy system. A grant enabled the installation to be free of cost.

“I love to read, and my husband does his own art and crafts,” Catherin Taylor said. “So that has been really great to be able to have bright light to see and do things.”

Native Renewables, with five full-time and six part-time staff, aims to connect 15,000 Navajo and Hopi families with solar power. The Taylors are one of the first Hopi families to receive a solar power system from the nonprofit.

Suzanne Singer, Native Renewables founder and executive director, said the task to power thousands of Native homes is monumental, but not implausible with community support.

“Energy independence to lots of tribal nations and communities, it’s really critical for their sovereignty,” Singer said. “They want to be able to manage their own systems, want to not be reliant on external entities for the individual families.”

Still in its startup phase, Native Renewables have powered 30 families. It replaced batteries in 12 different units. So far the nonprofit has donated 3,000 smaller-capability solar kits, including 1,500 last year alone.

A standalone 7.2-kilowatt capacity solar power system can power up to a refrigerator at the Taylor home. 

Public donations are the largest funding source, Singer said. The nonprofit started applying for various federal grants, as well.

Native Renewables was one of the 10 recipients of a recent $1.2 million grant from IGS Energy, an Ohio-based natural gas and electric supplier.

“I’m always advocating for investment in Native communities, and also in Native companies and organizations on the ground,” Singer said. “It’s always amazing when we get funded directly instead of getting funded as a pass through from who knows how many entities it goes through when it comes down to us.”

By the end of the year, Native Renewables expects to install 22 new 2.4 KW systems.

Another new company, Navajo Power, is working on a proposed 750-megawatt photovoltaic solar farm in northern Arizona to supply electricity to Native American families. The solar farm is anticipated to be up and running by 2024.

Connecting more families to power grid

Deep in Navajo Nation, the NTUA is gearing up for the largest grid extension year with the help of volunteers.

The next phase of what started as a pilot project in 2019, Light Up Navajo will connect 300 homes in a 12-week plan starting in April. 

About 200 volunteers from across the country are dividing their time and equipment into 48 work weeks. Working an average 12-hours shifts per day, each crew will connect at least two families to the power grid. 

“They volunteer their time, and they bring in their own equipment,” NTUA’s Haase said. “So now what happens is, it allows me to just buy material and only spend a smaller amount on equipment, so my dollars can go farther.”

NTUA estimates connecting a single Navajo home to the existing grid can cost more than $40,000. Supplementary infrastructure like power lines and transformers substations to bring electricity to all the powerless Navajo homes has a $350 million price tag, according to NTUA.

“What’s at stake is many of these folks have waited their whole lives to get electricity,” Haase said.

The average monthly electricity bill of a U.S. residence was $115 in 2019, according to data from U.S. Energy Information Administration. That calculates to $1,380 per year.

If NTUA had to self-fund the grid connection project without help from volunteers, it would have had to charge the families an average of $6,000 a year, Haase said.

Native Americans’ median household income of $40,315 is 35% less than the national average, according to 2017 American Community Survey estimates.

“There is no way that these folks can afford to do this on their own. And they shouldn’t really have to. They’ve suffered a lot of other problems, you know, from us being here and other things,” Haase said. “It’s the least we can do – provide them with the basic essential services that the rest of America has and has had for the last 40 or 50 years.”

Federal money on the way

As part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, U.S. Congress in 1936 passed the Rural Electrification Act, which provided federal loans to deploy electrical systems in rural areas across the country. However, the measure bypassed many tribal nations.

A Department of Energy analysis estimated 14.2% of Native American families on reservations have no access to electricity, compared to 1.4% of all U.S. households.

The Tohono O’odham Nation was one of the first Native communities to receive funding from the Rural Electrification Administration. A $2.5 million loan to the Tohono O’odham Utility Authority, established in 1970, funded the development and expansion of the electric system on the reservation.

The Tribal Power Act, introduced by Rep. Tom O’Halleran, D-Sedona, and passed last year, gives the Department of Energy’s Indian Energy Education Planning and Management Assistance Program $30 million annually until 2025. The legislation also makes it easier for Native tribes to seek grants and financial support to improve access to reliable electricity.

The bipartisan $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill passed in early November also has funding to address needs in tribal lands. About $3 billion will go toward broadband connectivity programs and infrastructure development. 

NTUA connected 510 homes to the grid last year after receiving $14.5 million as part of the federal CARES Act.

The plan for next year is to power at least 1,000 homes.

“If you can give us the resources, we can find the material and the labor to get it installed,” Haass said. “Let’s just keep working on getting this problem under control and getting the numbers lower and lower.”


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