Energy poverty in the US

February 11, 2017

On the Navajo/Dine’ reservation, 32 percent of all homes lack electricity, while 31 percent lack plumbing, 38 percent lack water services, 86 percent lack natural gas and 60 percent lack telephone services.  Around 14,000 homes are not connected to electricity.  While NTUA extends power to about 700 new customers per year, a steady increase in the number of households on the reservation makes it difficult to make a dent in the need, Haase said.  “When we electrify an area, we have more people moving in,” he said. “People come after the fact, and the good news is that it’s easier to connect them, but the bad news is that it’s hard to decrease the overall number that need it.”  At its current rate of 700 new hookups every year, it would take NTUA more than 35 years – and hundreds of millions of dollars – to electrify the entire reservation, Haase said. That won’t happen without “mass funding.”

For decades, Carol Bigthumb drove on this road, which parallels power lines and is in view of the Navajo Generating Station, yet she didn’t get electricity in her own home until 2014.

Courtesy Navajo Tribal Utility Authority. For decades, Carol Bigthumb drove on this road, which parallels power lines and is in view of the Navajo Generating Station, yet she didn’t get electricity in her own home until 2014.

Carol Bigthumb waited more than half a century for the lights to come on in her house.

Bigthumb, 57, grew up in LeChee, Arizona, a small community in the northwest corner of the Navajo Nation and about five miles from nearby Page. Hers was a simple life, shared with seven siblings and a herd of sheep.

“We hauled water from a pond and collected it from rainwater,” she said. “We grew up without electricity, so were always buying batteries or propane in bottles to power things we used around the house.”

Life without basic infrastructure – running water, phone or electricity – wasn’t a hardship, Bigthumb said, because she didn’t know any better.  “We knew how to get along without it,” she said.

Then two things happened to change her perspective: she spent eight years in Utah on the Indian Student Placement Program, where she first saw modern conveniences like kitchen appliances and TVs; and construction began in 1970 on the Navajo Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant that went up half a mile from Bigthumb’s home and delivered electricity and water to customers across Arizona, Nevada and California, but failed to serve her community.

More than 40 years later, in March 2014, Bigthumb finally flipped a switch in her house and got light.  But that was after raising eight children without running water or electricity. After starting a tourism business at nearby Antelope Canyon and operating without basic modern conveniences. After spending a lifetime in the dark.

Carol Bigthumb waited her whole life for electricity at her home in Lechee, Arizona. She put Christmas lights up for the first time in 2014. (Courtesy Navajo Tribal Utility Authority)

Courtesy Navajo Tribal Utility Authority

Carol Bigthumb waited her whole life for electricity at her home in Lechee, Arizona. She put Christmas lights up for the first time in 2014.

She was so accustomed to carrying around a flashlight that when she finally got power, she sometimes forgot to use it.

“At first, my husband and I kept carrying around flashlights,” she said. “We’d catch each other doing it and laugh and say ‘Turn on the light.’”

At age 56, Bigthumb – though still waiting for running water and plumbing services – joined a growing population of Navajo residents with humorous or endearing memories of the day they first got electricity.

Some make toast, said Deenise Becenti, spokeswoman for Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, the non-profit enterprise tasked with hooking up homes to utility services. Others brew coffee, boil beans, plug in air conditioners or put up Christmas lights. Many are elders who have lived decades without modern conveniences – the result of long waiting lists for service and eternal funding shortages.

It can cost as much as $50,000 to connect one customer to electricity, said Walter Haase, general manager for NTUA. And the hardship doesn’t end there: an estimated 32 percent of all homes lack electricity, while 31 percent lack plumbing, 38 percent lack water services, 86 percent lack natural gas and 60 percent lack telephone services.

In numbers, about 15,000 homes are not connected to electricity. But while NTUA extends power to about 700 new customers per year, a steady increase in the number of households on the reservation makes it difficult to make a dent in the need, Haase said.

“When we electrify an area, we have more people moving in,” he said. “People come after the fact, and the good news is that it’s easier to connect them, but the bad news is that it’s hard to decrease the overall number that need it.”

At its current rate of 700 new hookups every year, it would take NTUA more than 35 years – and hundreds of millions of dollars – to electrify the entire reservation, Haase said. That won’t happen without “mass funding.”

Creation of NTUA in 1959 followed decades of neglect when even federal policies like the Rural Electrification Act of 1935 – designed to bring electricity to rural and agricultural areas – failed to address tribal needs. That negligence is inextricably tied to the grim standards of living on the reservation now, and the dismal rates of unemployment and poverty, Haase said.

Navajo Tribal Utility Authority crews work to install electricity to remote areas in the western portion of the Navajo Nation. (Courtesy Navajo Tribal Utility Authority)

Courtesy Navajo Tribal Utility Authority.  Navajo Tribal Utility Authority crews work to install electricity to remote areas in the western portion of the Navajo Nation.

“Without electricity or water, it’s harder to live,” he said. “It takes you hours in the week to keep everything running. You have to haul water and coal and you have to chop wood. If you have to drive two hours to get water, or an hour or more to get food, you’re using precious time that you could be using to earn a living.”

An estimated 43 percent of Navajo people live below the federal poverty line, with an average per capita income on the reservation of $7,300, as compared to the U.S. average of $43,000.

All of these figures work against the average Navajo family that just wants to flip a switch and have light, or heat, or refrigeration, Haase said. It is especially difficult and expensive to extend power on the reservation, where residents can be isolated and scattered.

“The problem with operating any utility is that when you have lots of customers, it’s more efficient,” he said. “On the reservation, with its 27,000-square-mile territory, there are fewer customers per mile, so operating costs are the highest in the country with the people who are least able to afford them.”

But sometimes the wait makes it that much sweeter when the light finally does come on, Becenti said.

“Just hearing stories of having to wait and what they did to get by, that’s hard,” she said. “When they say ahe’hee (thank you) that means something. The deep gratitude is there. For technicians, hearing grandmas or grandpas say that, it makes their job worthwhile.”

Originally published by Indian News Network

The following article was originally published by RMI: The Rocky Mountain Institute: 24 June 2014, by Laurie Guevara-​Stone, Native Energy: Rural Electrification on Tribal Lands

If I told you about a place where almost 40 percent of the people live without electricity, over 90 percent live below the poverty line, and the unemployment rate exceeds 80 percent, you might be picturing a rural village in Africa or some other developing country. However, this community is actually within U.S. borders. I’m talking about the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, home to the Oglala Lakota. Native American reservations are often referred to as the “Third World” of the United States. For the over one million Native Americans living on reservations today, life expectancy is low and job opportunities scarce. Yet some Native American tribes are embracing renewable energy technologies as a way to access reliable electricity, bring in much needed income, and create jobs.

Access to Reliable Electricity

The Energy Information Administration estimates that 14 percent of households on Native American reservations have no access to electricity, 10 times higher than the national average. Many reservations have homes scattered over large areas, far from a utility grid. With the cost of extending utility distribution lines to remote locations as much as $60,000 a mile, it is often cheaper to power the remote homes with solar energy and battery storage.

That is exactly what’s been happening on the Hopi and Navajo reservations for years. The Hopi Nation in Arizona formed the Hopi Solar Electric Enterprise in 1987, which sold and installed small-scale solar systems to Native Americans. Debby Tewa, a licensed electrician, worked with the Hopi Solar Electric Enterprise, now called NativeSUN, for 11 years as both electrician and project manager. Tewa, who spent the first ten years of her life in a home without electricity or running water in a remote area of the Hopi reservation, helped install 300 residential solar PV systems on homes throughout the reservation through a revolving loan program. The loan required a down payment and subsequent monthly payments until the loan was paid off.

The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority (NTUA) has offered solar PV systems to its customers who don’t have access to the grid since 1999 through an affordable rental program. NTAU is currently renting 263 systems, a small percentage of the number necessary for the estimated 18,000 homes on the reservation not connected to the grid. In this case people don’t own the PV system, but pay for the electricity provided, similar to the SolarCity model. More recently NTUA started offering solar-wind hybrid systems. An 800-watt PV array along with a 400-watt wind turbine costs the homeowner $75 per month which goes towards the purchase of the system, and is enough to power lights, TV, appliances, and an energy-efficient refrigerator. NTUA finances the systems, which is much cheaper for them than to extend their utility lines to the homes.

Just this small amount of power has been shown to drastically improve people’s quality of life. Children can do homework at night raising education levels, family members can make crafts under better lights increasing their income, and people don’t have to breathe the harmful fumes from kerosene lanterns, improving health. Having refrigeration means not having to go into town as often for food, a trip that can be long and time-consuming. And being able to charge cell phones and laptops can help with communication and education.

Native Microgrids

While residents on reservations with widely dispersed homes (in some parts of the Navajo reservation homes are 20 to 30 miles apart) are turning to individual renewable energy systems, others are looking to renewably-powered microgrids. The Moapa Band of Paiutes tribe recently completed a 250 MW hybrid microgrid project that delivers power to the off-grid Moapa Travel Plaza, the largest employer of the tribe. The system includes concentrated PV trackers, a battery bank, and three energy-efficient generators, one of which runs on diesel to provide energy at night when there is not enough battery power.

An outcome of this project is much needed economic development for the Moapa tribe, which until recently only had a gas station, a truck stop, and a small casino to generate income. In addition, three businesses in town run on diesel generators at a cost to the tribe of $1.5 million a year—the microgrid will allow them to tap into solar power, saving over $700,000 in fuel costs annually.

Wind power is helping other native communities reduce their diesel use, too. The village of Tuntutuliak, known locally as Tunt, in Western Alaska is home to 400 Yup’ik Eskimos. Tunt, along with 56 similar villages in the region, runs on its own diesel-powered microgrid. But with diesel costing close to $7 per gallon, energy costs consume approximately half of the overall budgets of these villages, compelling many of them to turn to wind power. So in 2012 the Alaska Energy Authority and the Tuntutuliak Community Services Association constructed a 450 kW wind-diesel hybrid system that powers the town of Tuntutuliak.

Five 95 kW wind turbines now dot the landscape of Tunt, reducing diesel use by 70,000 gallons a year, meaning almost half a million dollars in annual savings. Thirty of the homes have electric thermal storage devices, which store the excess wind electricity to help heat homes when the wind is not as strong.

However, putting a renewable microgrid in such a harsh remote environment wasn’t easy. A large sled had to be constructed to pull the rotor blades across the frozen tundra, and due to the remoteness of the community, a lack of bolts in the shipment meant a postponement of several weeks.

Yet even if installing renewable energy projects on tribal lands is challenging, Hopi electrician Debby Tewa believes it’s well worth it. Getting clean reliable electricity is transformative for Native Americans who have lived without light for years. Tewa is now involved in teaching others on reservations about renewable energy. “When you teach your community, you empower your community and you invest in your community,” she says. And investing in renewable energy is helping many Native Americans improve their quality of life.

NATIVE SUN — Hopi Reservation, Arizona

For Debby Tewa, running her own business is less about making a profit and more about meeting an important community need.

The director of start-up venture Native SUN/Hopi Solar Electric Project, Debby sells and installs battery operated solar panel systems, bringing electricity to remote villages on the Hopi and Navajo reservations. Without Native SUN’s cost-effective power source, members of both tribes would have to spend thousands of dollars to pull the Arizona Power Service to their remote homes or resort to propane lamps and generators for electricity.

“The people who invest in solar systems, the have their own little power plants,” says Debby, who gave up a successful career as a commercial electrician with profit sharing in Phoenix to return to the Hopi reservation. “The reward I get from this job is that I am basically lighting up people’s lives.”

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Further statistics from http://www.ncai.org/about-tribes/demographics

Total American Indian/Alaska Native (AI/AN) alone population: 2.9 million or about 0.9 percent of the US population.(r1)

  • States with the highest proportion of American Indians and Alaska Natives: Alaska (19.5%), Oklahoma (12.9%), New Mexico (10.7%).
  • Between 1992 and 1997, the number of Native-owned businesses grew by 84 percent to a total of 197,300 businesses, and their receipts increased by 179 percent.
  • The number of American Indian- and Alaska Native-owned businesses totaled 237,386 in 2007, up 17.9 percent from 2002; total receipts of these businesses were $34.5 billion, up 28.3 percent from 2002. (r5)
  • American Indian- and Alaska Native-owned businesses accounted for 10.0 percent of businesses in Alaska, 6.3 percent in Oklahoma and 5.3 percent in New Mexico.
  • Between 1990 and 2000, income levels rose by 33 percent and the poverty rate dropped by 7 percent, with little difference between those tribes with gaming operations and those tribes without gaming. (r6)
  • More than 25 Indian tribes govern lands that are either adjacent to borders or directly accessible by boat from the border. These tribal lands encompass over 260 miles of international borders – a distance 100 miles longer than California’s border with Mexico.
  • Tribal lands in the US hold a quarter of the on-shore oil and gas reserves and developable resources and one-third of the West’s low-sulfur coal within the US outer boundaries
  • Tribal renewable energy potential is very high.  In addition to supplying the energy needs of residents, if tribal lands have 14% of the nation’s wind potential and could supply 4.5 times the whole energy needs of the US from solar power alone, if investment were available.
  • The number of American Indian and Alaska Native students enrolled in colleges and universities and the number of postsecondary degrees awarded has more than doubled in the past 30 years. (r11)   Only five percent of American Indians and Alaska Natives have received graduate or professional degrees, compared to 10 percent for the total population, and only nine percent of American Indians have earned bachelor’s degrees compared to 19 percent for the US population. (r11)