CANYON DIABLO – A bright white lightbulb lit the small, dirt-floored hogan. It nearly matched the intensity of the smile on Paula Curtis’ face.
Visitors dropped in to admire her home, newly equipped with solar power. A shed-size utility building next to her traditional Navajo dwelling promised to change life dramatically for Curtis and her three children, who live on the reservation about an hour northeast of Flagstaff.
The building would capture sunlight to heat the water she trucks in from a well 7 miles away. A large tank holding the water would radiate heat to warm the home. A small solar-panel array would make electricity for lights and a small refrigerator. The building also offered a plumbed bathroom for the home, which doesn’t have running water.
No more kerosene lamps. No more freezing nights indoors. No more heating water in pots to wash up or storing food in an ice chest. No more hikes to the outhouse.
Curtis’ joy soon would turn to disappointment, though.
A few days after the January celebration presenting her with the free power system, volunteer contractors discovered that her home, like many on the reservation, was built from railroad ties treated with creosote, a potential carcinogen.
Even though the home now boasted a $60,000 solar electricity and water-heating system, it was not safe. Curtis moved out.
So volunteers began seeking donations to build Curtis and her family a new home, only the latest obstacle to bringing solar power to the thousands of rural Navajo families without electricity on the vast reservation.
Even with substantial funds, effort and determination, bringing power to the Navajo people through solar and other renewable technologies is daunting. The climate, remote location, lack of finances and existing housing stock conspire against it.
But the small group of volunteers working on the Plateau Solar Project – a Navajo activist, a contractor, and all the workers they could muster – say they are committed to bringing power to Paula Curtis and others.
The challenge is familiar to those who have tried to bring renewable power to the reservation.
The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority provides electricity to about 39,000 customers but estimates that 16,000 families live beyond its power lines. Some officials estimate that including other tribes in the area, there are 20,000 homes in the region without power.
The logistics of delivering electricity to some of the most remote areas in the nation have long been overwhelming. Solar power backed up by batteries offers an obvious solution. But even this power has its own issues.
Many people on the reservation simply can’t afford solar. The emerging technology is costly.
Although some federal grants are available for people in rural areas to get electricity, and charitable groups are willing to donate resources, the sheer number of homes without power is overwhelming.
Qualifying for funding also is difficult because homes must be in good enough condition to be worth the investment.
That’s a problem on the Navajo Reservation, where many of the homes are not sturdy enough to be expected to last as long as the 25-year warranty on solar panels.
They often are either poorly insulated or have bad roofs, which also prevents them from qualifying for many grants for solar until the problems are fixed.
Solar panels and water heaters also require maintenance, which is hard to provide in many far corners of the reservation.
Add to that the extreme weather that wears out the equipment, especially the batteries.
The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority has tried to help those too far from power lines by leasing portable solar-electric systems to about 250 homeowners in a program established in 1998.
Customers pay $75 a month to lease the units, which is not nearly enough to cover the costs, said Terry Battiest, who manages the solar program.
“You try to connect as many homes as possible with the funding you have,” he said. “We do hope the cost of solar continues to drop and we can buy more systems.”
Life without power
In January, the Plateau Solar Project selected Curtis, 41, to receive her solar water-heating and electricity system for free because of the difficulty she experiences raising three children on the remote reservation.
Working at a Flagstaff salon cutting hair, she also helps support three adult children who have moved out of the small house. Until about six years ago, she supported her six children by working in construction.
Without electricity, her day typically began before sunrise, using either the wood-burning stove or a propane stove to heat water for washing up.
When it was cold, the stove was the only source of heat in the home.
Sometimes, the children stayed at a boarding school in Winslow. The family sometimes stayed in a hotel for warmth.
Sometimes, Curtis paid to use the showers at a truck stop to clean up, and sometimes she visited friends whose houses have power and running water.
“They try to get me to move to town,” she said. “But I can’t afford to move to town. And I don’t like living close to people. I can’t live in an apartment or a trailer court. I can’t see my neighbors looking at me.”
While getting ready in the morning, Curtis would send one of the boys, ages 12 and 13, out to the truck to turn on the radio to see if the weather called for snow.
When staying at the home without power, her 15-year-old daughter liked to get to school early to plug in her curling iron.
“I feel like the kids will be here more when we have electricity,” she said before the solar project was finished. “A lot of times they don’t want to come back over here because of the situation. We’ll have more harmony being together as a family.”
The children liked to stay with their friends or grandparents, where they could watch movies and plug in their video games.
They had a small, battery-powered DVD player, but the batteries often died mid-movie.
The children spent a lot of time reading, and when it was dark, it meant bedtime. On weekends, they stayed up playing board games by the dim light of a kerosene lantern.
Passion for project
Elsa Johnson, a Navajo woman who lives in Scottsdale, is passionate about bringing solar power to the rural Navajo Reservation with her Plateau Solar Project.
Her non-profit, Iina Solutions, launched the project to take advantage of the money available from utilities and the federal government to help Navajo residents power their homes.
Johnson has spent countless hours bouncing along the rugged back roads of the reservation in search of people she could help.
She is partially driven by the irony that the Navajo Nation and Hopi Tribe are surrounded by coal-fired power plants that send their electricity to Phoenix, Tucson and other big cities but the people living on the reservations get little benefit beyond jobs at the coal mine and power plants.
“The Navajo and Hopi tribes supply all of the Southwest with cheap electricity, and yet my folks up here do not have electricity,” she said. “That really eats at me. I am always amazed when a catastrophe happens elsewhere and everyone goes to that place and donates and everything. My heart goes out to those people because I know how hard that is. But you see right out here in our own backyard, a lot of these people will never have infrastructure.”
To help the Curtis family, Iina Solutions tapped into money available from Salt River Project through a settlement with the Grand Canyon Trust environmental group connected to the expansion at the Springerville Generating Station coal-fired power plant. SRP agreed to pay $5 million for projects that reduce pollution and benefit the communities near the power plant.
The Grand Canyon Trust gets to help decide where the money is spent, and its officials want the money to compensate the people of the reservation who live with air pollution and transmission lines but don’t benefit from the power.
The trust awarded Iina Solutions money to put solar on the Curtis home, hoping it would serve as a demonstration project for more homes to use the same style of power building.
Iina Solutions hopes to bring solar to at least 100 of the Navajo families living without power.
Many of the people who have applied for solar through Johnson’s project have had solar installed by other contractors and the systems have failed after a year or two, she said.
“In some places, we saw that they wired them with an extension cord that runs across the floor or ceiling,” Johnson said. “Sometimes, they simply store the batteries in a box outside,” where they fail because of the extreme cold and heat, she added.
Help from an expert
When Johnson launched the project, she wanted to build robust power systems that would not break down under the extreme weather conditions.
She turned to Mark Snyder, an electrician, homebuilder and inventor from California, to develop a solar system that could last on the reservation.
She said she chose him because in 2009, he designed solar water-purification systems that were deployed to Iraq, where the infrastructure had been destroyed by the war.
Snyder, chief executive of Global Solar Water Power Systems Inc. of Spring Valley, Calif., modified a power structure, which he originally designed for nomads in Sudan, for use on the reservation.
“The Sudan climate is not nearly as hostile as here in winter,” he said.
He estimates that it will cost about $24,000 per unit to build the structures, after his initial trial with the Curtis.
“The biggest problem out on the rez, the systems just die,” he said.
On another job where he was installing solar panels on a Navajo home, he said, some of the neighbors joked with him about how useless solar panels were on the reservation.
“They asked, ‘Have you seen a solar panel blow by today?’ ” he said, a reference to stiff winds that often destroy roof-mounted solar panels there.
Snyder knows the difficulty from a previous project, as well. His company donated a solar-power system to another Navajo home that was featured on the television program “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition” in 2007.
The revamped home got lots of attention after the show aired because the family complained it wasn’t insulated enough to fight the frigid winter weather.
Snyder said that his solar installation on that home works but that the project offers lessons for contractors hoping to help.
Simply installing the solar utility structure at the Curtis home reveals the difficulty of bringing energy to this rugged corner of the world.
Once crew members poured the foundation concrete, it took several hours to center the building on the footing because they were working without a crane or any heavy equipment.
“The first one is always the hardest,” Snyder said.
They worked well into the night as temperatures dropped to near zero.
Snyder and Johnson said they are moving forward regardless of such challenges. And if many of the homes need upgrades, then that is just an obstacle they will have to negotiate.
“We are not giving up,” Johnson said. “There has got to be something that can be done. It rips my heart out that there are so many folks out there without power.”
Her non-profit has been approved to install solar-power units on 25 more Navajo homes with money from the power-plant settlement and from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. But before they start, she needs to raise money for labor. Most of the labor for the Curtis home was donated.
“I can’t keep asking for that,” she said. “Unemployment is over 50 percent up there. We need jobs.”
A life changed
When the contractors turned on the lights for the first time at her hogan, Curtis was overwhelmed.
Even Navajo President Ben Shelly came out for the event.
“I never thought I’d have light in this hogan,” Curtis said. “I can see everybody’s faces now. I don’t have to come home and stumble over the cat and fall over . . . looking for my kerosene light.”
The volunteers also presented her with a refrigerator, allowing her to keep milk and other perishable food in the house for the children.
She also was able, finally, to use an electric coffeemaker. Soon enough, the children were playing Xbox video games on a 27-inch television.
If they wanted to, they could read past sunset.
Contractors discovered the toxic railroad ties while tearing apart a wall to check if the insulation could be improved. When they told Curtis that the home was unsafe to live in because of the creosote on the railroad ties, her dreams were dashed.
Rather than bring the family together as hoped, the family now would have to live apart. Curtis moved out. The children returned to a boarding school in Winslow.
One of her older sons remains at the home to ensure its security, and Curtis meets there on Sundays with the younger children, who briefly get to enjoy the lights, videogames and amenities they long had waited for.
The money from the Springerville fund that paid for the power project on the home can’t be tapped for a new home for Curtis because that doesn’t fall within the scope of the money’s intended use.
Iina Solutions has been lobbying the tribe, charitable groups and construction firms for donations to build the family a new home.
Difficulty in finding homes that need electricity but are in good enough condition to warrant solar power is one reason that only about $200,000 of the $5 million fund that SRP set aside has been spent.
“It is taking a while to get funds out and get projects because of challenges,” said Lori Singleton, SRP’s sustainability-initiatives manager.
“There were a lot of lessons learned,” Singleton said. “It is definitely more difficult than putting a solar installation in a house in Phoenix. There are challenges we might not have in the Phoenix area, but I do think it will be successful.”
The USDA also provides funding for renewable energy on the reservation, but those funds are difficult for many Navajo residents to secure because they have stipulations regarding the condition of the house, Johnson said.
But Roger Clark, a program director with the Grand Canyon Trust in Flagstaff, said that problems with Curtis’ hogan won’t set back attempts to roll out solar on the reservation.
For the next projects, he said it will be important to review houses first to ensure they are safe before putting renewable energy on them.
“Every project we are involved in has some unique attributes,” he said. “There is hardly anything I’ve ever done out on the reservation that is easy, but that doesn’t mean we will stop trying.”
Meanwhile, Curtis and her family wait for help. She remains hopeful that someone or some agency might step forward with the funds to rebuild the small hogan.
“We’ll see what happens with that,” Curtis said.
Reach the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org.