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Bringing renewable energy home in Navajo country (photos)

At the rural Navajo Indian reservation in New Mexico, the local utility is renting out solar and wind generators to residents, an easier and less expensive way to bring electricity service to homes.

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Martin LaMonica
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Off the grid but plugged in

The Johnson family who live on the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico had this solar and wind power generator installed in February of this year. The system, which has a battery to store about two days' worth of energy, costs $75 a month in a rent-to-buy arrangement with the local utility, Navajo Tribal Utility Authority. The utility owns and maintains the system during the leasing period. This distributed generation unit replaced a diesel generator, which was harder to maintain and operate.

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Maria Johnson

Nine-year-old Maria Johnson shows off the energy indicator light on the battery system. The family checks the energy level periodically or at the end of the day to monitor the batteries. There isn't much maintenance for the system itself, but people who have these off-grid renewable-energy systems need to make sure they don't damage the batteries by regularly running them all the way down.

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Johnson family

The Johnson family (Monica, Erica, Nathaniel, and Maria) inside their home on the Navajo Reservation in western New Mexico. Since getting electricity service, the family has been able to get modern appliances, such as a refrigerator, TV, and microwave. The specially chosen energy-efficient refrigerator means the family doesn't need to haul ice from the store.

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Power lines behind the house

People on the Navajo Reservation in New Mexico tend to live far apart. So even though the Johnson family has a power transmission line running right behind their house, they are not connected to the electricity grid. It costs about $30,000 per mile to bring a home onto the grid and, in the case of the Johnson family, they didn't have the money to pay for a connection. It turns out that the local utility may bring service to their house as part of a system upgrade in the coming months, but in the meantime, the family has on-site electricity service.

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Distributed generation

Nathaniel Johnson shows off the hybrid solar-wind system, which includes a self-contained battery. The area in New Mexico tends to get good wind at night, so it generates power after the sun sets. The self-contained generator, which fits on top of a shipping skid, was designed by an American Indian-owned company in Albuquerque called Sacred Power.

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Coal stove

Even though about 200 families have been equipped with renewable-energy systems, the backbone of the energy system in Navajo country is coal, which is used for power generation at the local power plant and home heating. Johnson heats with coal, which he gets himself, or wood.

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Solar wind combo

It's estimated that 18,000 of the 250,000 residents of the Navajo Reservation don't have electric power. Distributed, off-grid solar-wind generators, which are owned by the rural utility and rented by residents, have been installed at about 200 homes in a program that was started in 2000. Some of the early systems ran into trouble when people tried charging them with diesel generators, but the Johnson family has not had any major problems with theirs.

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