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Hybrid solar-wind power connects rural Navajos

A family on the Navajo Reservation gets electricity service for the first time by using a utility-financed package of solar, wind, and battery storage. Next up: a renewable-energy-powered Internet connection.

The Johnson family's hybrid solar-wind generator, one of about 200 distributed energy systems installed on the Navajo Reservation where about 18,000 people don't have electricity service.
Martin LaMonica/CNET

NAVAJO RESERVATION, N.M.--Power transmission lines run a few hundred yards behind the Johnson family home here, but it took an off-grid solar and wind generator to finally bring them electricity service.

The Johnsons, who live on a remote stretch of land on the Navajo Reservation west of Farmington, N.M., are among about 200 families on the Navajo Reservation who rent an off-grid renewable-energy system from the rural utility. They opened their home to visitors last week during a fellowship organized by Institutes for Journalism & Natural Resources.

The hybrid power generator, which was installed in February, combines an eight-panel solar array, small wind turbine, and battery, all contained in a single unit on a shipping skid. It outputs alternating current to the one-story house next door, allowing the family to enjoy modern conveniences many of us take for granted, including a refrigerator, microwave, TV, and electric lights.

The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority is financing the installation of these systems as it costs about $30,000 per mile to bring power from the grid to individual homes. An estimated 18,000 Navajo Reservation residents don't have access to electricity, out of an estimated population of about 250,000.

The Johnson family pays $75 a month which goes toward the purchase of the system, which replaced a diesel generator which had broken down. The only other option for electricity service was to pay $40,000 to bring service from the closest power distribution loop, which they couldn't afford.

The family came into the land from Monica Johnson's grandmother. They decided to build an energy-efficient house there themselves despite not having the "necessities" of electricity and water, Monica said.

The off-grid solar-wind systems themselves don't require a lot of maintenance but homeowners still need to know how to operate them and use their available energy wisely. Some of the earlier units installed broke down when people hooked up their generators to them and apparently damaged the batteries.

The family needs to keep an eye on the amount of stored energy they have to ensure they have enough to keep running the refrigerator, lights, and appliances. There's a simple indicator light with green, orange, or red to show the state of battery charge, which Nathaniel, Monica, and their two daughters--Maria and Erica--check regularly. The house has a full-height refrigerator but it's an energy efficient model specially chosen to go with the solar-wind generator.

The generator itself was made by Sacred Power, an American Indian-owned business based in Albuquerque, which designed the system to be self-contained and easy to transport. The 800-watts' worth of solar output work with a 400-watt wind turbine or a propane generator. The area tends to get more wind at night so it continues to charge after sunset, said Nathaniel Johnson.

The rent-to-own renewable-energy program originated at the nearby Sandia National Laboratories in 2000 and was originally financed with low-cost loans from the Farm Bill, according to Sandra Begay-Campbell, the director of the Native Communities Energy program at Sandia National Laboratories. The program has shown that renewable sources have become part of the energy supply mix on the reservation even though power generation is still dominated by local coal, she said.

"Part of this is seeing how the technology can be a viable option to (meet) a financial need--individual citizens couldn't afford those power lines yet they could afford $75 a month to have one of these units at their homes," Begay-Campbell said. The latest procurement included 52 hybrid energy systems, she added.

Nathaniel Johnson, who has lived almost his entire life without electricity service, said the wind and solar system is easier than the diesel generator and it's affordable. The system has proven durable, too, having lasted without breaking down during the winter.

Next on the Johnson family's wish list is a computer and Internet access. "I'm looking forward to connecting to the outside world. If I need to find out something for the tractor, we could just look it up," he said.