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Off the Grid in Navajo Nation

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A couple weeks ago, I highlighted Central Maine Power’s (CMP) plan to extend their grid into a rural part of the state, and the community’s pushback. As Bob Meinetz, this website’s most engaged and informed member, pointed out, there is plenty to dislike about CMP’s moves, but his concerns aren’t really reflected in the complaints of the disgruntled Mainers. They, above all else, are upset that their pre-industrial fantasies will be tarnished by power lines. That’s fine, of course. Afterall, people should be able to live however they want so long as their choices don't negatively affect others. However, sadly, there are still many in our country who live off the grid not by choice.

Earlier this week, NPR published an article documenting off the grid living in the Navajo Nation, America’s largest Native American reservation. According to official statistics, 10 percent of the territory’s residents live without electricity, but some experts warn that the true number may be much higher. The article follows the Billies, a family that’s been waiting for a power connection over 15 years. They mostly get by on pesky propane lanterns and flashlights but have to go to grandma’s house when bigger needs arise, like hooking up the nebulizer to alleviate the kids’ allergies.

Connecting homes like the Billies’ is complicated. Houses on the reservation are spread out, making them expensive to connect–around $40 thousand a pop. That’s a ton of for a population with an unemployment rate of 50 percent. Luckily, the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority and the nonprofit American Public Power Association have hooked up to provide power to those places in the area without it, but they’re still a ways off.

Henry Craver's picture

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Bob Meinetz's picture
Bob Meinetz on Jun 2, 2019 2:46 pm GMT

Henry, it was my impression no one in Somerset County was lacking a grid connection, and polls show 83% of residents oppose the transmission line. It's necessary because ISO-NE will be facing a supply crisis after the closure of three nuclear plants: Maine Yankee, Vermont Yankee, and Pilgrim (just yesterday). Together, they generated over 2,100 MW of carbon-free electricity for New England's grid.

To replace it, the plan is to install 1600 MW of offshore wind turbines south of Martha's Vineyard, and build this 156-mile transmission line to import hydroelectricity from Canada. Integrating renewable energy is always problematic, and the environmental impacts of offshore turbines and transmission lines are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg, given the amount of electricity to be replaced.

In a report optimistically-titled Energy Security Improvements, ISO-NE lays out the challenges - and reveals much of the clean nuclear generation will be replaced by burning gas. Aka, in the context of climate change, going backwards.

"The electric power system in New England is undergoing a major transition. The owners of traditional power plants – nuclear, coal, and oil-fired – are permanently shuttering many of these stations due to economic and environmental pressures. The majority of the region’s electricity, both currently and for the foreseeable future, is likely to come from newer, more efficient natural- gas fired generation and an array of renewable energy technologies, such as solar- and wind- powered generation."

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