Power to the People – 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-ired

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 A solar system torture test
traverse makeshift dirt roads twice a week to fetch water and wood (a 50- to 70-mile drive). If there’s one thing the desert can be, it’s unforgiving. Temperatures in Navajo country
hings many of us take for granted are foreign to this community. hey light their homes range from a blistering 110 degrees Fahrenheit (43° C), down to -30 degrees Fahrenheit

with a single kerosene lamp that emits toxic gasses, and live everyday without indoor (-34° C). Aside from hitting those in the community hard, such extreme conditions
plumbing, running water, or electricity. A lack of power also means the Navajos can’t wreak havoc on batteries and other equipment that are the backbone of any solar energy
refrigerate healthier, fresher foods, store medicine, access the Internet, or even use vital installation.
medical devices, such as oxygen respirators.
Previous eforts by diferent companies to set up a successful renewable energy site

But, there is hope for change.
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
The Plateau Solar project
un-insulated metal boxes, to old refrigerators that once baked in the scorching sunlight,
Elsa Johnson grew up on the reservation, and knows irsthand the hardships that of-grid remain broken and used up from unsuccessful past project attempts.

Navajos’ face. Johnson left, but returned to the reservation some 30 years later only to ind “For this project to work, we had to work with nature and remove the variables that
the living conditions hadn’t changed. hat led her to establish a Navajo non-proit, called caused previous installations to fail,” shared Snyder, who helped design and work on the
IINA Solutions, to ight poverty on her native land (IINA means “life” in Navajo).
Plateau Solar Project (PSP). “And because these homes are so remote, we had to make sure
Johnson started the Plateau Solar Project with solar expert Mark Snyder, owner of they were built to last. We couldn’t let these people down.”

Mark Snyder Electric and CEO of Global Solar Water Powers Systems Inc. (GSWPS). He is a Initially, the system was designed to protect the batteries, but upon further
master electrician, an inventor, and a solar homebuilder.
consideration, it was thought: “Why not make the building modular and multi-purpose?”
“We created the Plateau Solar Project to bring essential electrical, water, and sanitation Johnson, in turn, immediately thought to manufacture these structures to serve
services to Navajo elders 62 years and older, who desperately need them,” explained thousands of of-grid homes, thereby creating jobs for the Navajo people. And jobs that not

Snyder. “Each installation is designed for a 25-year lifespan. It delivers sustainable solar only contribute to the community, but also the environment.
thermal power for hot water, space heating, and electricity—and creates jobs for the his led to the creation of the patent-pending Enertopia Multi-Purpose Utility Structure
Navajo people.”
(EMPUS). his irst-of-its-kind building is designed from the ground up to protect solar
Once IINA Solutions was awarded grants from the USDA Rural Development Program equipment from harsh weather for 25 years. he 8×20 foot (2.43×6 meter) building

and the Renewable Energy Investment Fund, the team faced a daunting challenge.
features R-42 super-insulation from P2000 and climate control, electricity, hot water, and a
full bathroom.

EMPUS Bump-outs feature numerous solar-powered devices, and even store solar heat
Each EMPUS unit stores electricity in eight lead-acid batteries

In 2012, forty 4×8 EMPUS Bump-outs were installed—compact, low-cost, modular To keep their EMPUS module running continuously, each family pays a $35 monthly fee
versions of the full units (without complete bathrooms).
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.
A solar device building
“We want to create our own trained workforce for a sustainable future,” explained

EMPUS Bump-outs feature numerous solar-powered devices, but what’s most unique is Johnson. “Ultimately, this project creates jobs for 25 years, while bringing vital electricity,
that the buildings themselves store solar heat.
water, and sanitation to the Navajo people using clean energy.”
Solar thermal hot-air panels use advanced solar absorbers in the hot-air panels to heat Today, the program is expanding to include energy eiciency, retroitting, and home

the super-insulated structure. he unit itself absorbs heat in the daytime, and then releases weatherization. Even wind turbines from Native American-owned Cherokee Wind are
that heat as it cools down at night. Two insulated ducts send excess warm air from the being included.
EMPUS into the home during the day, reducing the need for non-sustainable wood and “By collaborating with nature,” Johnson said, “we have designed and engineered an
coal-burning stoves, which degrade interior air quality. he EMPUS also features solar- innovative, durable, and economical approach that’s evolved from a single project into

powered cooling and ventilation.
a much more long-term venture. Now, we’ve even renamed the project ‘Plateau Solar
Solar power comes from high-eiciency solar modules, with a two-kilowatt (kW) and Wind,’ and we’re looking for new partners to expand our work to all indigenous
equivalent solar panel system. he array includes passive solar tracking to increase communities here and worldwide.”
eiciency and reduce costs. A charge controller was also designed with a Navajo language Mark Snyder is excited about the future. “I’m so grateful to IINA Solutions, the ive

voiceover for monitoring activity and alerting maintenance people of any abnormal 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,
Inside the unit, a regulated, climate-controlled temperature maximizes battery life. creating green jobs, training skilled workers, and bringing power to the people.”
Batteries are especially vulnerable because if they’re left out in the rain, dust, or snow, they

can die early. Dozens of batteries were ield-tested for lifespan, durability, and performance John Connell is the VP of SLI products at Crown Battery Manufacturing Company.
before choosing advanced technology batteries. Each EMPUS unit currently houses eight to
16, 400aH, six-volt renewable power batteries.
Funding agencies for Plateau Solar Project are USDA Rural Development, Renewable Energy
Finally, a 500-gallon water tank and solar-powered pump provides clean, running water Investment Fund (REIF), administered by the Grand Canyon Trust. Contributions of time and

to a sink and/or bathroom in the elder’s house. Water is hauled only from certiied clean donations by Engineers Without Borders also made the project possible. To learn more, visit
water sources. his is important in the area, as uranium tailings from earlier decades of www.iinasolutions.com or www.marksnyderelectric.com.
mining have contaminated many wells, making the local water unsafe to drink.
Crown Battery Manufacturing Company

Building the future
“Navajo on the reservation face 50% unemployment—one of the highest rates in the
nation,” said Johnson. “his 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.”

North American Clean Energy


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