Many Navajo still living without electricity: Solar
and wind power a solution for some
By Alysa Landry, Farmington
Daily Times, January 14, 2007
SHIPROCK — The drone of a small wind
turbine is the only sound punctuating the stillness
on a plot of land five miles south of Shiprock.
A few houses dot the horizon to the east, and an occasional
car passes by on Navajo Route 36 — the only signs of
civilization Denton Blueeyes sees from his home near
Blueeyes, 74, grew up on the Navajo Nation and doesn't speak
English. Until two years ago, he never had electricity
in his home.
"I've been living here for years
and years," Blueeyes said with the help of an interpreter.
"We never had power or running water or heat."
On a clear day, the retired engineer
for Navajo Engineering Construction Authority can see
the power lines that serve a nearby community, but in
the 30 years that he's lived in the one-bedroom
house, the promise of light and heat has never come
closer than two miles.
Blueeyes is one of about 350 Nation
residents to rent a renewable energy unit from the Navajo
Tribal Utility Authority. At the cost of about $80 per
month, Blueeyes and his wife can plug in a television
and a lamp.
"I used to use kerosene lamps for
light," Blueeyes said through an interpreter. "Now
the lamps are packed away, and I don't have to take
them out except in the barn."
The package includes a 10-foot solar
panel and a wind turbine that, together, produce about
two kilowatts per day — enough to power a small house
or double-wide trailer, said Melvin Duncan, an electrician
for NTUA's Shiprock District.
The unit uses natural energy to charge
two car batteries, he said. As long as the batteries
are charged, electricity flows into the house. Technicians
maintain the units throughout the year, adjusting the
solar panels every season to accommodate the sun's changing
position in the sky.
The unit relieves some Third World conditions
faced by residents of the remote areas on the Nation,
but there are limitations, NTUA Renewable Energy Specialist
Larry Ahasteen said. The batteries can take as long
as eight hours to charge on a sunny day, and when they're
drained to 20 percent capacity, the unit shuts off.
"It only powers a coffee pot in
the morning, and maybe lights and the TV," he said.
"We really stress to the families to be conservative
and manage their load. It can't power a hair dryer,
a range, a toaster or a water heater."
Customers can supplement the power with
a gas-operated generator, Ahasteen said, but even with
an additional energy source, the unit falls short of
some customers' expectations.
Blueeyes still hauls water for drinking
and bathing, and for his small herd of sheep. He still
uses an outhouse perched 50 yards from the house, and
he still heats his home with coal.
Blueeyes is building a cistern next
to the house, and he hoped the solar and wind power
would help pump the water inside.
"I would still have to haul water
and put it into the tank, but I wanted the unit to pressurize
it," he said. "I was told the power will not
be enough. There are still limitations, and I have to
Even with its limitations, the unit
provides a service that likely won't be available to
remote areas in the near future — the cost to run a
power line tops $30,000 per mile, said Herb Beyale,
superintendent in the Shiprock NTUA office.
"It's not too feasible to supply
electricity to just one home, a home right smack in
the middle of nowhere," he said. "It's more
convenient to set up a solar unit."
Blueeyes probably won't get power lines
any time soon, Ahasteen said. The waiting period for
electricity in homes on the Nation is decades long,
with about 18,000 households in line.
With a little less than 50,000 households
on the Navajo Nation, the number without power is close
to 20 percent, and only a handful have access to the
solar and wind units.
Only seven households in the Shiprock
District are renting units, but the need is much greater,
"We haven't really promoted the
program," he said. "There would be an influx
of people asking for it, and we don't have the amount
we need to deploy them into the field."
The need for power on American Indian
reservations is great, said Jonathan Cogan, energy information
specialist with the U.S. Department of Energy.
More than 14 percent of reservation
households have no access to electricity, he said, as
compared to the less than 2 percent of all U.S. households.
The Navajo Nation alone accounts for 75 percent of
the households in the country without electricity.
Solar and wind units are a temporary
solution to the problem, Ahasteen said. The NTUA always
is looking for grants to run power lines to the rural
parts of the Nation.
"We want to get that power out
to the families," he said. "Once we get power
to the families, we change the concept of the family.
We give them refrigeration, TV, heat, and that changes
things. That's the vision we have."
Alysa Landry: email@example.com