By Kathy Helms
Dine Bureau
Gallup Independent

LEUPP – Five rural Navajo elders will receive solar electricity to light up their homes by the first part of the new year with the help of Plateau Solar Project, an entity designed to bring electricity, water and sanitation to under-served and disabled elders.

The five are among nearly 40 low-income or no-income applicants who have qualified so far for a 2-kilowatt solar system funded through USDA Rural Development grants. Last year, 78 grant applications were submitted to USDA by Plateau Solar Project, established by non-profit IINA Solutions and Mark Snyder Electric as a “clean energy solution” for Indian Country.

“Some of these folks have been living without power or water for all of their lives, and they’re now 62 and over,” Elsa Johnson, director of IINA Solutions, said.

According to Navajo tribal statistics there are approximately 18,000 rural homes without electricity and indoor plumbing on the Navajo Nation.

The life of a rural underprivileged elder is in a constant state of survival, according to Johnson, who is originally from the Black Mesa area. “I grew up without electricity and running water so I know firsthand that water and wood hauling is never ending,” she said.

Since then, Johnson has lived in San Diego, Chicago and now Phoenix where access to electricity and water are commonplace. But for rural Navajos, “Not a lot has changed,” she said.

Residents must haul water and wood on rough dirt roads at least twice a week, and their only light source is usually a kerosene lamp. Their diet and health also can suffer through lack of refrigeration for food and medicines.

In 2010, after conducting a thorough field study in the southern Former Bennett Freeze Area, Johnson and Snyder determined the key to improving the quality of life for rural Navajo elders is through solar energy. Expansion of electric power lines and water lines into rural areas can cost millions-, if not billions of dollars and can take years to complete.

“We’re bringing power, water and sanitation, which is all infrastructure – a modified version of very economical infrastructure. It really saves the tribe billions of dollars that they would have to spend expanding the grid to these folks. Some of them live on rock-bed, and to try to extend a power line or water line to them just doesn’t make any sense, so this is the best alternative,” Johnson said.

The solar system Leupp Chapter elders will receive is similar to the pilot project installed last January at the hogan of Paula Curtis in the Canyon Diablo area.

Project partner and international solar expert Mark Snyder tapped several leading solar manufacturers to design the solar system to last 30 years, plus withstand the severe elements of the Colorado Plateau.

The project comes in three phases and utilizes many forms of solar energy. It also includes a climate-controlled structure, the patented Enertopia Multi-Purpose Utility Structure, or EMPUS. Phase one includes solar electricity, wiring/rewiring, and water. Funding permitting, phases two and three will consist of hot water, sanitation and communication.

The EMPUS building will be attached to the resident’s existing home and initially will store an inverter, eight batteries and a 500-gallon water tank.

“We’re situating these buildings on the south side of the house where the hot air panels and the solar thermal will get exposure to the sun. The second phase is going to involve another eight batteries and solar thermal and hot air panels. The third phase is going to be the bathroom,” Johnson said.

Addressing the 52 percent unemployment rate on the Navajo Nation is also an issue with Plateau Solar. The Tuba City High School carpentry class is including Plateau Solar Project in its school curriculum. Global Solar Water Power Systems, of which Snyder is president, granted the high school a limited license to build the EMPUS buildings under a grant.

Snyder said he appreciates the opportunity to serve and improve the lives of the Navajo elders and people. “I am also very happy to share my 37 years of experience to create green jobs and to train skilled Navajo solar installers in PV, solar thermal, clean water, electrical, plumbing, maintenance, and high-efficiency housing.”

“We will cross-train laborers to wire, rewire and plumb homes, and install systems so we can grow our own green-collar trained work force,” Johnson said.

Funding for Plateau Solar Project comes from USDA Rural Development and Renewable Energy Investment Funds administered by Grand Canyon Trust, which pays solely for the units and hardware.

“We’re looking for partners to help us,” Johnson said, as they continue their outreach to the aging Navajo and Hopi populations in rural areas. “It’s a huge undertaking.”

The first family they worked with in the Leupp area was anxious to get started, Johnson said. Family members drove to Flagstaff and picked up the cement provided by Plateau Solar rather than having to wait for delivery. They had a generator and even rented a cement mixer so the concrete could be poured the same day.

“They stepped away from their regular schedule and said, ‘Our parents have waited long enough. We want to get them electricity as soon as possible,’” Johnson said.

Information: . Donations are tax deductible.