From Pickups to PV

Utility brings solar power to far-flung Navajos

  • Fred Logg

    Daniel Kraker
  • Fred Logg used to use his pickup to power his house, starting the engine every two hours so the battery wouldn't go dead. Now he has a solar system.

    Daniel Kraker
 

When Fred Logg returned to the Navajo Nation to care for his aging parents, he wanted electricity. He had lived in Europe, worked for congressmen from the Four Corners states, and grown accustomed to the comforts most Americans take for granted: flipping through TV channels, washing and drying his clothes.

But his parents lived on the western edge of the reservation, in the "Bennett Freeze" area, on land that both the Hopi and Navajo tribes claimed. In the 1960s, a federal judge banned all development until the dispute was resolved. No electric lines could be strung; no water lines hooked up.

So Logg had the house wired for electricity and connected it to the battery of his pickup. Every two hours he had to fire up his truck to recharge the battery. And any time he drove somewhere, the house went dark. But it was something.

Then, about 10 years ago, Logg applied for a small solar system from the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, or NTUA. Working with New Mexico's Sandia National Laboratories, the utility installed the $15,000 system for free, and charged Logg's family $75 per month. On a reservation where there are nearly 20,000 homes without electricity, the program has changed lives. "A lot of people say their children can do homework now because of the solar units," explains Leland Begody, an electrician for NTUA. "They now can study at night with the lights on."

The Navajo Nation is blessed (or cursed, depending on your point of view) with incredibly rich energy resources. Much of the Cold War was fueled with uranium dug from tribal lands. Billions of tons of coal lie just beneath the scrubby ranchland and sandstone mesas. Two massive coal-fired plants already operate on the Navajo Nation, and the tribe is pushing for a third.

The reservation also has huge potential for wind and solar power. Researchers at Northern Arizona University have identified over 4,500 megawatts of potential wind energy capacity. Two companies are fighting for the right to build a large wind farm on Gray Mountain, south of Fred Logg's home. But that project has bogged down in tribal bureaucracy and infighting. Besides, many Navajos argue that huge energy projects don't help the people.

"We have all of these big power plants on our reservation, and we benefit very little from them," former NTUA renewable energy specialist Larry Ahasteen wrote in a Department of Energy newsletter five years ago. "Although they create jobs and royalties, we still have to buy our electricity." And just a few miles from these power plants, many homes still don't have electricity. 

Logg lives only a half mile from the nearest electrical line, but many Navajo live several miles away. At a cost of nearly $30,000 per mile to extend those lines, small-scale solar and wind systems seem like the perfect solution: They're clean, quiet and relatively affordable. NTUA has installed more than 300 across the reservation. 

The small systems also force home-owners to conserve energy. "It's taught me to be mindful of how much you use for power and what other people use," says Logg. He's installed compact fluorescent light bulbs in his home and uses a laptop because a desktop monitor sucks too much power. His parents listen to a battery-powered radio and hang clothes out to dry.

Most home appliances use way too much electricity, he says, and would quickly drain his 680-watt system. So his family uses a very small refrigerator, and doesn't store a lot of food in the summertime. Electrician Leland Begody says one of his customers insists on keeping a standard refrigerator, but runs it only during the day. "She pulls the plug at night, and she doesn't open it again until the next morning when they need it," he explains. "On cloudy days they hook up a generator to it. So they learn how to live within their limits of what they can use and what they can't use."

Despite the program's successes, there have been challenges. Fred Logg and his family were without electricity for several days this spring. Begody discovered that a recent lightning strike had fried a piece of electric equipment, and an unusual string of cloudy days had drained the system's batteries. Kyocera, the company that built the systems, "told us they would last for five days without sunlight," says Begody. "But we got fooled on that" — the batteries last only one or two days.

NTUA, which is seeking funding to upgrade its systems, will begin installing new, larger solar/wind hybrid units in the fall, each of them complete with an energy-efficient refrigerator. Logg is already shopping around for additional solar panels. Although he appreciates his solar system, he'd connect to the grid if he could. The solar panels just "lack oomph," he says. 

Still, even if he did have power lines strung to his parents' house (a possibility since the Bennett Freeze was lifted in May), he'd maintain his energy-frugal ways. We don't need "all the latest gadgets that come bigger, wider, huger, whatever," he says. But he would like a washer and dryer ... energy-efficient models, of course.