David Hefner and his crew rumbled toward Arizona in bucket trucks, digger derricks, and vehicles full of materials. The Oklahoma linemen typically drive their fleet to storm-ravaged communities after hurricanes and tornadoes disrupt power for days. But when the team set off in April, it wasn’t to repair battered poles and wires. Instead, they helped bring light to homes left in the dark for generations.
About 60,000 people in the Navajo Nation—a vast swath of high plains and desert in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah—still can’t access the electric grid from their homes. Thousands more lack running water. In recent years, the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority (NTUA) has doubled down on efforts to extend power lines, build substations, and provide residents with off-grid renewable energy units. Now, public utilities across the United States are pitching in to accelerate the country’s longest-running rural electrification campaign.
“We have our own American people right here in our backyard that don’t have what we consider the modern necessities,” said Hefner, the distribution power line superintendent at Grand River Dam Authority, a nonprofit utility in Vinita, Okla. “We wanted to be a part of helping build this infrastructure.”
For six weeks in April and May, about 125 volunteers from two dozen utilities partnered with Navajo crews and met with families through Light Up Navajo, an initiative by NTUA and the American Public Power Association (APPA). In the coming months, organizers will assess how to replicate the program in years to come.
Teams in the pilot session installed poles, transformers, lines, and meters to connect more than 200 houses to the grid—including the home of an elderly man who planned to buy his first refrigerator. NTUA itself has connected about 4,900 homes in the past 10 years, though the work remains costly and painstakingly slow, said Walter Haase, the general manager.
The utility spends about US $40,000 on average to hook one home up to the grid, including thousands of dollars in fees to use a federal right-of-way (since the reservation is on federal land). Homeowners must pay more than $3,000 to wire their houses and connect electric meters—a considerable expense. The average NTUA customer pays about $630 a year for electricity, which is not nearly enough for the utility to recoup its infrastructure costs.
At the current pace, NTUA says it will take 40 years to connect the remaining 15,000 off-grid homes, or about a third of the houses scattered throughout the 70,000-square-kilometer reservation. “That’s just too long to wait,” Haase said from his office in Fort Defiance, Ariz.
Under the Rural Electrification Act of 1936, the U.S. government provided financial incentives to help utilities and newly formed cooperatives bring electricity to far-flung farms and towns. Yet the movement largely bypassed Native American lands. Along with Navajo households, thousands of Hopi families in Arizona and numerous Alaska Native households still aren’t connected to the grid.
The Navajo Nation formed NTUA in 1959 to address this oversight. The utility’s first large solar plant, the 27.3-megawatt Kayenta facility, came on line in 2017. A 28-MW addition is slated for completion in June. Revenues from the solar electricity help fund the utility’s rural electrification efforts.
Haase said the idea to partner with outside utilities came after a rash of extreme weather blasted grids in Puerto Rico, Texas, and Florida. Workers arrived in droves to restore power through mutual-aid agreements. Haase recently chaired APPA’s board, and members frequently asked about using a similar approach for the Navajo effort. APPA awarded the utility a $125,000 grant to design and launch the pilot program, and NTUA and volunteers are raising more money through GoFundMe campaigns.
Through a multimillion-dollar project with the U.S. Department of Energy, the utility has also provided hundreds of off-grid units to Navajo families, including hybrid models that combine an 880-watt solar array, a 400-W wind turbine, and a small battery bank.
The units supply a few hours’ worth of electricity in the evening. For elderly couples or people living alone, this can be sufficient. But large families and younger residents, accustomed to round-the-clock power off the reservation, tend to use more electricity than the units are designed to support. In those cases, grid power makes more sense, said Sandra Begay, an engineer and Navajo Nation member who helped facilitate the project for Sandia National Laboratories.
She said the rural electrification efforts aren’t intended to push modern infrastructure on Navajo families, but rather to give them the same access enjoyed by residents in the rest of the country. “It’s really about choice,” Begay said. “I don’t ever want to have it where somebody doesn’t have a choice.”
This article appears in the June 2019 print issue as “Plugging in the Navajo Nation.”