Bringing clean energy & water to rural Navajo elders
By John Connell

Navajo people living in the Four Corners Region of Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah have some of the most abundant sunlight in North America. In fact, they are the major electric supplier for the entire southwest through coal mining and coal-fired plants. Perhaps surprisingly, however, over 20,000 Navajo still live in homes without electricity, running water, or sanitation.

Among the hardest hit are elders with disabilities and health problems. Most have to
traverse makeshift dirt roads twice a week to fetch water and wood (a 50- to 70-mile drive).
Things many of us take for granted are foreign to this community. They light their homes
with a single kerosene lamp that emits toxic gasses, and live everyday without indoor
plumbing, running water, or electricity. A lack of power also means the Navajos can’t
refrigerate healthier, fresher foods, store medicine, access the Internet, or even use vital
medical devices, such as oxygen respirators.
But, there is hope for change.
The Plateau Solar project
Elsa Johnson grew up on the reservation, and knows firsthand the hardships that off-grid
Navajos’ face. Johnson left, but returned to the reservation some 30 years later only to find
the living conditions hadn’t changed. That led her to establish a Navajo non-profit, called
IINA Solutions, to fight poverty on her native land (IINA means “life” in Navajo).
Johnson started the Plateau Solar Project with solar expert Mark Snyder, owner of
Mark Snyder Electric and CEO of Global Solar Water Powers Systems Inc. (GSWPS). He is a
master electrician, an inventor, and a solar homebuilder.
“We created the Plateau Solar Project to bring essential electrical, water, and sanitation
services to Navajo elders 62 years and older, who desperately need them,” explained
Snyder. “Each installation is designed for a 25-year lifespan. It delivers sustainable solar
thermal power for hot water, space heating, and electricity—and creates jobs for the
Navajo people.”
Once IINA Solutions was awarded grants from the USDA Rural Development Program
and the Renewable Energy Investment Fund, the team faced a daunting challenge.
A solar system torture test
If there’s one thing the desert can be, it’s unforgiving. Temperatures in Navajo country
range from a blistering 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43° C), down to -30 degrees Fahrenheit
(-34° C). Aside from hitting those in the community hard, such extreme conditions
wreak havoc on batteries and other equipment that are the backbone of any solar energy
Previous efforts by different companies to set up a successful renewable energy site
didn’t account for these conditions, and millions of dollars of failed systems litter the
landscape. Everything from failed batteries and inverters, which are crammed inside
un-insulated metal boxes, to old refrigerators that once baked in the scorching sunlight,
remain broken and used up from unsuccessful past project attempts.
“For this project to work, we had to work with nature and remove the variables that
caused previous installations to fail,” shared Snyder, who helped design and work on the
Plateau Solar Project (PSP). “And because these homes are so remote, we had to make sure
they were built to last. We couldn’t let these people down.”
Initially, the system was designed to protect the batteries, but upon further
consideration, it was thought: “Why not make the building modular and multi-purpose?”
Johnson, in turn, immediately thought to manufacture these structures to serve
thousands of off-grid homes, thereby creating jobs for the Navajo people. And jobs that not
only contribute to the community, but also the environment.
This led to the creation of the patent-pending Enertopia Multi-Purpose Utility Structure
(EMPUS). This first-of-its-kind building is designed from the ground up to protect solar
equipment from harsh weather for 25 years. The 8×20 foot (2.43×6 meter) building
features R-42 super-insulation from P2000 and climate control, electricity, hot water, and a
full bathroom.
In 2012, forty 4×8 EMPUS Bump-outs were installed—compact, low-cost, modular
versions of the full units (without complete bathrooms).
A solar device building
EMPUS Bump-outs feature numerous solar-powered devices, but what’s most unique is
that the buildings themselves store solar heat.
Solar thermal hot-air panels use advanced solar absorbers in the hot-air panels to heat
the super-insulated structure. The unit itself absorbs heat in the daytime, and then releases
that heat as it cools down at night. Two insulated ducts send excess warm air from the
EMPUS into the home during the day, reducing the need for non-sustainable wood and
coal-burning stoves, which degrade interior air quality. The EMPUS also features solar-
powered cooling and ventilation.
Solar power comes from high-efficiency solar modules, with a two-kilowatt (kW)
equivalent solar panel system. The array includes passive solar tracking to increase
efficiency and reduce costs. A charge controller was also designed with a Navajo language
voiceover for monitoring activity and alerting maintenance people of any abnormal
Inside the unit, a regulated, climate-controlled temperature maximizes battery life.
Batteries are especially vulnerable because if they’re left out in the rain, dust, or snow, they
can die early. Dozens of batteries were field-tested for lifespan, durability, and performance
before choosing advanced technology batteries. Each EMPUS unit currently houses eight to
16, 400aH, six-volt renewable power batteries.
Finally, a 500-gallon water tank and solar-powered pump provides clean, running water
to a sink and/or bathroom in the elder’s house. Water is hauled only from certified clean
water sources. This is important in the area, as uranium tailings from earlier decades of
mining have contaminated many wells, making the local water unsafe to drink.
Building the future
“Navajo on the reservation face 50% unemployment—one of the highest rates in the
nation,” said Johnson. “This project creates green jobs by cross-training local workers to
plumb, wire, and rewire homes, and install solar systems to meet or exceed industry codes
and standards.”
To keep their EMPUS module running continuously, each family pays a $35 monthly fee
that covers maintenance, servicing, and replacement of key components. In addition, each
elder and another family member will receive training to help with non-technical tasks.
“We want to create our own trained workforce for a sustainable future,” explained
Johnson. “Ultimately, this project creates jobs for 25 years, while bringing vital electricity,
water, and sanitation to the Navajo people using clean energy.”
Today, the program is expanding to include energy efficiency, retrofitting, and home
weatherization. Even wind turbines from Native American-owned Cherokee Wind are
being included.
“By collaborating with nature,” Johnson said, “we have designed and engineered an
innovative, durable, and economical approach that’s evolved from a single project into
a much more long-term venture. Now, we’ve even renamed the project ‘Plateau Solar
and Wind,’ and we’re looking for new partners to expand our work to all indigenous
communities here and worldwide.”
Mark Snyder is excited about the future. “I’m so grateful to IINA Solutions, the five
Navajo chapters, and all our other partners,” he says. “After over 37 years in the renewable
energy industry, there’s still nothing more rewarding than improving living conditions,
creating green jobs, training skilled workers, and bringing power to the people.”
John Connell is the VP of SLI products at Crown Battery Manufacturing Company.
Funding agencies for Plateau Solar Project are USDA Rural Development, Renewable Energy
Investment Fund (REIF), administered by the Grand Canyon Trust. Contributions of time and
donations by Engineers Without Borders also made the project possible.
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