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Solar projects in the Navajo and Hopi nations to electrify homes win federal funding

Photo by Tvn Phph Prung Sakdi | EyeEm/Getty Images

Two projects in Arizona have been preliminarily selected as part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s funding for community-driven energy projects aimed at lowering energy costs and enhancing energy security in rural and remote communities across the nation. 

The DOE announced more than $366 million this month in funding for 17 projects in 20 states and 30 tribal nations and communities. According to the DOE, the projects focus on accelerating clean energy deployment nationwide in rural and remote areas.

The two Arizona projects selected focus on providing electrical help within Indigenous communities by providing services to the Hopi and Navajo nations.

One project, led by Native Renewables, Inc., focuses on energizing rural Hopi and Navajo homes using solar-powered battery-based systems. 

The project plans to electrify 300 homes on the Hopi and Navajo nations by installing 2.5 kW off-grid solar and battery storage systems. The goal is to enhance energy resilience and increase electrification rates within the community. 

Chelsea Chee, the deputy director of Native Renewables, said this is the first time the organization has applied for a large grant, and they’re grateful for the recognition from the Department of Energy for the work they’ve been doing.

“We got a lot of support letters for this proposal,” she said, adding they’re ready to get to work. 

Native Renewables project proposal seeks $8 million in funding to help install 300 solar photovoltaic and battery storage systems in off-grid homes across the Hopi and Navajo Nation. 

“The work we do is really important because it’s cost-effective and for a lot of the homes on Hopi and Navajo that don’t have electricity,” Chee said.

About 21% of homes on the Navajo Nation and 35% of homes on the Hopi Nation do not have access to electricity, according to a 2023 report by the DOE’s Office of Indian Energy. Of the electrified homes within tribal communities, 31% reported monthly outages. 

Chee said another reason many homes on the Hopi and Navajo Nations have gone without electricity may be that connecting them to the electrical grid is expensive.

Electrifying one household on the Navajo Nation is an expensive endeavor because, on average, each household requires one transformer, 0.6 miles of wire, nine poles, 16 insulators, and two arrestors to connect to the electric grid, according to Salt River Project. The average cost is around $5,500.

Chee said that their team sees the costs of getting connected to the grid through the tribe, and they want to be able to help. 

“We want to help create solutions and grow solutions,” she added.

Through the Hozho Homes Program, Chee said that their team does not have to extend utility lines or add eclectic poles to connect the homes to electricity. 

“We want to work with the ones that are really far from the utility line,” she said.

Chee said it only takes their team showing up with their truck and trailer full of material to install their solar system in one day, and by the end of it, the family will have electricity.

The grant funding will allow them to help 300 more people.

Chee said her company’s work for the Hopi and Navajo Nation involves providing and installing donated off-the-grid solar photovoltaic systems.

Since the solar systems are donated, the families selected for installation do not have to pay a monthly payment and there is no initial cost. 

“That’s part of this program,” she added.

The work is done through the Hozho Homes Program, Chee said, and their team has been able to install 72 systems since it launched in 2016. 

“We really educate our families to know their limits,” she said, including conversing with families about how the solar system works and how much electricity they could use at home.

“We encourage our families to really watch and be careful about the amount of electricity they’re using,” Chee added, and they work with the families to figure out what they can and cannot do with the systems. 

One of the biggest things for families to know, she explained, is that they cannot run large appliances, such as air conditioning units or refrigerators, with the systems. 

“We standardize the system and the design because we want to help as many people as we can, and it’s more cost-effective at the moment,” she added.

The homes are also equipped with a battery system that stores energy when the sun is not shining, allowing families to use the power when needed.

One of the installations done for the Hozho Homes Program was at a Hopi woman’s home, Chee said, and she shared with the team how she never thought she would get electricity. 

“When we were able to help her. She was surprised, happy and thankful at the same time,” Chee said, because she finally got electricity for her children and grandchildren. 

Many homes on the Hopi and Navajo Nation are multi-generational, so when one household gets electricity, it helps everyone in the area because it allows the families to stay on the same land as their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents.

“When our installers come back, they tell stories of how it’s just beautiful to see families who didn’t have electricity one day be able to turn on the lights after we install them,” Chee said. 

The potential funding from the Department of Energy grant would be able to provide job security for their team at Native Renewables for the next five years, as well as help them install at least 300 solar systems for Navajo and Hopi homes, Chee said. 

“We want to grow and build an Indigenous renewable energy workforce,” she said, and it will provide a way for them to educate their workforce and the families they help.

The projects selected for potential funding are part of DOE’s Energy Improvements in Rural or Remote Areas program, which is headed by the DOE Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations

Before funding is issued, the DOE states that the selected projects will undergo a negotiation process, and the DOE may cancel negotiations or rescind the selection for any reason during that time. 

The funding announcement did not include details about the length of the negotiations, but the next steps include the DOE co-hosting four virtual community-level briefings to provide information on the selected projects in the respective region.

Arizona State University is leading the other project selected in Arizona. According to the DOE, the Hopi Nation Community Solar Project focuses on providing a microgrid, solar photovoltaic and battery storage system with optimized backup diesel generation.

The project stated that the aging power infrastructure at the Turquoise Trail Municipal Complex on the Hopi Nation has limited building operations to 12 hours per day for five days a week. These limitations have left the Hopi Nation vulnerable to emergencies and lacking critical services during off-hours.

The Hopi Nation Community Solar Project is requesting $9.1 million in funding, according to the DOE, and the project plans to employ up to 19 local workers for temporary construction jobs, up to 12 newly trained solar/microgrid construction workers, and one long-term microgrid manager.

The funding for the projectes, made possible through President Joe Biden’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, will support various community-driven energy projects in rural and remote regions. 

“President Biden firmly believes that every community should benefit from the nation’s historic transition to a clean energy future, especially those in rural and remote areas,” U.S. Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm said in a press release.

According to the department, rural and remote communities face unique energy challenges due to their smaller populations and isolation from larger electrical systems. Some of the challenges these communities face include higher electric bills, unreliable energy supplies or no access at all to electricity. 

“Thanks to the President’s Investing in America agenda, DOE is helping revitalize communities across America — ensuring thriving businesses, reliable access to clean energy, and exciting new economic opportunities, now and for generations to come,” Granholm said.

At least 12 projects approved for award negotiation support Tribal communities, according to the department. The DOE website provides more details about all the projects.

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