(Times photo – Cindy Yurth)

Doo’ook’osl”d looms behind Paula Curtis’s remote home site in Leupp Chapter. Curtis was the first recipient of an experimental solar heat and electricity system designed specifically for conditions on the reservation.

Prototype unit heralds new generation of solar

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi’ Bureau

LEUPP, Ariz., Jan. 22, 2011

Times photo – Cindy Yurth)
An artist’s rendering of the new solar structure.

On Sunday, Paula Curtis was able to flip a switch and light flooded her tiny hogan on the rim of Diablo Canyon.

Not only that, but the 50-foot dash to the outhouse on a sub-freezing night is a thing of the past.

“It will be very odd and weird,” declared the single mother of six last week as workers from a San Diego solar power company delivered the 20-foot-long prefab building that will supply her remote home with both electricity and running water.

Curtis is the first beneficiary of the Plateau Solar Project, a partnership between Navajo nonprofit IINA Solutions, Mark Snyder Electric and Global Solar Water Power Systems.

The partners share the ambitious goal of supplying electricity and an indoor bathroom to all 20,000 homes on the Navajo Nation that don’t yet have those things.

For Curtis, it may mean that her three children who are still in school can come back and live with her.

“I just put them in the dorm in Winslow,” she said. “I ran out of wood and I didn’t want them living in this cold house.”

Her new unit won’t completely heat the 300-square-foot hogan her father built, but it will make her wood supply last longer.

Solar thermal panels on the building will warm water that will run into pipes in the new bathroom, with any residual heat siphoned into a wall-mounted unit inside the existing house.

A tracking solar panel, meanwhile, will supply two kilowatts of electricity to the house – about half what the average American household uses, but enough for lights and a few small energy-efficient appliances.

The well insulated prefab building houses batteries to store solar energy received during the day for nighttime use. On the other end is a small but fully equipped bathroom: composting toilet, shower and sink.

“I’ll never get my kids out of there,” Curtis said, laughing. “I’ll put up a ‘No Trespassing’ sign and camp in there myself.”

She’ll still have to haul water from the windmill down the road, but by dumping it into the system’s indoor water tank, Curtis will have pressurized hot and cold water.

No more stopping by the Little America truck stop on the way home from her hairdressing job in Flagstaff: Curtis and her family will be able to take their first showers at home.

Basic amenities

Funded by the Renewable Energy Investment Fund, a joint project of the Grand Canyon Trust and Springerville Generating Station, the $20,000 unit may hold the answer to the daunting infrastructure needs in the Navajo Nation’s most remote and poor communities.

Elsa Johnson of IINA and Mark Snyder of Mark Snyder Electric have been dreaming up ways to help Navajo families since they met in 2008 while working on the “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” house in Piñon, Ariz.

“At first we were thinking about a way to collect and recycle all the junk cars,” Johnson said. “That just wasn’t economical because of the distances they would need to be transported.

“Then we were talking about water purification systems,” she said, “and that’s still on the drawing board for the future. But the thing we kept hearing from people was they wanted basic utilities: water and electricity.”

That was right up Snyder’s alley, as his company specializes in solar applications. But touring some off-the-grid systems that had been installed on the Navajo Nation in the last 10 years, Johnson and Snyder were surprised how many were already broken – victims of theft, lack of maintenance and the harsh climate.

Explained Rick Yoerg, project manager for Plateau Solar, “The battery is the most vulnerable part. It’s hard to kill a solar panel, but if the battery is out in the elements, with rain, snow and blowing dust, and nobody’s topping off the distilled water or you overload the system, it gets fried.”

Snyder set about designing an enclosed system so the battery would be protected. But, he reasoned, as long as he was building a building, why not make it multi-functional?

“The building is actually a solar device in itself,” he explained. The solar-thermal panels on the ceiling heat not only the water pipes but also the air space inside the ultra-insulated structure, transferring heat to the adjacent house when it warms to a certain temperature.

And, since there was already going to be a heated building, Snyder thought, why not make it into a bathroom too?

Talking the language

To minimize operator error, each unit is equipped with sensors that detect any problem and tell the owner – in Navajo – how to fix it. 

“Since these are still in the experimental phase, they’ll be monitoring it back in San Diego,” Yoerg explained, “to make sure the family is able to follow the instructions and reset the system.”

As a safeguard, Johnson added, Plateau would like to eventually train a team of locals who can troubleshoot.

“These would be some of the ‘green jobs’ the politicians are always talking about,” she said.

Manufacturing the units could also be done locally. In fact Johnson and Snyder have already approached Greyhills Academy in Tuba City about having its shop program turn them out, and received a positive response.

With this week’s installation, the only glitch seemed to be transportation. By the time Snyder and his crew arrived from San Diego, after braving high winds and mechanical problems with their towing vehicle, it was pitch dark on the un-electrified canyon rim.

They successfully inched the seven-ton trailer over 15 miles of washboard, a frail-looking bridge, and up the steep, curving road out of the wash, but with no light to mark the Curtis place, they overshot and had to make a U-turn.

The truck and trailer bogged down in soft sand. Luckily Yoerg had a shovel.

“This is actually a pretty good road for this area,” Yoerg observed. “We may have to scale down the units for the even more remote homes.”

Snyder was undeterred.

“It’s all part of the experiment,” he said. “We’re learning as we go.”

If all goes well, Snyder and Johnson hope to install 100 units within the next few years. Most of these will go to elders so they can qualify for funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development Fund, which aims to help homeowners over 62.

Two more green jobs were created when Johnson discovered the USDA’s daunting 24-page application.

“We hired two ladies to translate the applications into Navajo for the elders and help them fill them out,” she said.

With that assistance, some 70 elders turned in applications, nearly doubling the number the USDA fielded last year in the entire state.

Johnson, who currently lives in Scottsdale, Ariz., but who grew up in a traditional household in Forest Lake Chapter, said she’s seen a lot of well-intentioned projects fall by the wayside. She believes this one is different.

“Mark and I did a lot of legwork before we even started developing anything,” she said. “He sees the problems and comes up with ways to deal with them before they arise.”

For Paula Curtis, and hopefully hundreds like her down the road, the project will provide the “odd and weird” experience of turning on a light switch in her home, and using an indoor toilet – things most Americans don’t find weird at all.