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Navajo Utility, Local, Native-Owned Solar-Storage Systems Vendor Bring Sustainable Energy to the Reservation

Rural and municipal electricity cooperatives (co-ops) are increasingly turning to the combination of solar PV and battery-based energy storage (BESS) in bids to improve and extend provision of electricity services while at the same time capping rate increases and reducing fuel costs, as well as greenhouse gas emissions and overall environmental impacts. That includes rural electric co-ops, as well as utilities and a new generation of independent energy services companies, serving residents, businesses and government on Native American Tribal lands. 

Spanning an area of 27,425 square miles (71,030 square kilometers) that includes portions of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah and some of the most iconic landscapes in the U.S. West, the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority (NTUA) launched a residential off-grid solar PV-BESS program to provide basic electricity services to off-grid residents some 20 years ago. More than 240 home solar PV-BESS systems, some of them including a small-scale wind turbine, have been installed in recent years, and NTUA aims to install many more, as well as commission a utility-scale solar energy facility. 

Local, Native American owned and operated solar energy businesses have sprung up in tandem, taking advantage of declining costs and improved performance of both solar PV and BESS to address a surprisingly high level of energy poverty, and all that goes along with it, on Native American Tribal lands. 

Big Navajo Energy

 Based in Harrisville, Utah, Big Navajo Energy specializes in designing and installing off-grid solar PV and BESS on the Navajo Nation and surrounding areas. Launched around five years ago, the company is providing off-grid home solar power generation systems to Navajo Nation residents who have never had access to sustainable electricity services. 

Big Navajo CEO Dory Peters was born in Shiprock, New Mexico on the high, arid Colorado Plateau, where his vista encompassed the peaks of the Chuska Mountains, the highest of which approach 10,000 feet in elevation. Peters became acquainted with solar PV in the 1980s as a youth while visiting Germany, Switzerland and Austria as a member of a Mormon Church mission. “I didn’t think much about it then, but the memory has stayed with me,” he explained in a telephone interview. 

A Navajo, Peters’ background in finance helped him win funding from Millennium Research for a natural gas-fired power generation project, his first taste of success. The company’s representative suggested Peters start his own company, advice he took to heart. 

Returning to northern Europe on an exploratory research trip, Peters was impressed by the degree to which renewable energy and environmental consciousness were core facets of residents’ education, upbringing and lifestyle. “I decided I need to do this on the Navajo reservation,” he recounted. 

Back home, Peters was somewhat shocked at the glaring lack of sustainable electricity access on Native American reservations he learned about upon reading Navajo Housing Authority (NHA) studies. Then he began compiling a list of potential solar energy and battery storage equipment and systems providers with an eye towards launching a business that could help improve the situation. 

Finding Funding and Support

Humless Co. and Goal Zero were among the first to express their enthusiasm and support for his nascent venture. “Lots of people loved the idea: installing a system as small as 1500 watts would be sufficient for lighting, cell phone charging and such,” Peters elaborated, “but I had to pass through Navajo Nation procurement process.” That included finding sources of funding. 

“I worked with the USDA (U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, which runs the Rural Utilities Service) and the Bureau of Reclamation (Dept. of Interior),” he continued. The latter in particular “was really excited about helping me fund some of my projects.”  

Residential, off-grid solar PV-BESS projects in Montezuma Creek and Aneth, Utah were the first carried out with funding from USDA and the Bureau of Reclamation. Encouraged, Peters showcased Big Navajo’s first solar PV-BESS solution to the Navajo Nation government about four years ago. 

In addition to bringing cleaner, healthier, more reliable and less expensive off-grid solar electricity to Navajo Nation residents – young families and the elderly in particular – Peters also aimed to help improve communications on the reservation by working with the Navajo Nation telecommunications agency. “They purchased one of my units that same year. That was really the first sale I made through the Navajo government,” Peters noted.

Enterprise Focused on Delivering Socioeconomic Benefits

Earlier this year, the Navajo Nation agreed to purchase five of Big Navajo Energy’s portable solar PV-BESS units.That included one with a Thermomix solar-hot air space heating system that Big Navajo installed last October. "They (Phoenix, Az.-based Thermomix) have been really helpful,” Peters said. 

So has Anthony Peterman, energy adviser to Navajo Nation Speaker of the House Lorenzo Bates, Peters added. “I really try hard to work with the Navajo Tribal legislative office. This past year, with Peterman’s help, Speaker Bates agreed to purchase the five portable solar energy-hot air space heating systems.” 

Aiming to build on this success, Peters and Big Navajo Energy are working to develop several projects, including one with the Hopi Land Commission that entails installing off-grid solar PV-BESS generation systems for the elderly, who, as is typical for Navajo Nation and Hopi reservation residents, typically live far from any shops, much less grid access points. 

Some have waited 50 or 60 years for grid access. “There are literally thousands of elderly people living in similar situations. NHA found upwards of 18,000 families that lacked access to basic, sustainable electricity services,” Peters pointed out. 

That’s a stark reminder that energy poverty and the “digital divide” – and all that these lack of these public services convey with regard to health, education, socioeconomic development and opportunity -- are very much in evidence across the U.S.

That noted, U.S. and Tribal government agencies, utilities and a new breed of independent energy services companies, such as Big Navajo Energy, see "light at the end of the tunnel," and it's not an oncoming train. More to come in part two of this blog post.

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