Reservation’s remotest corners get light with small-scale, solar-wind systems

Daily chores around the house for Maria and Erika Johnson are different than many American children. In addition to taking care of their pets and cleaning their rooms, the girls are tasked with monitoring the battery levels of the wind-solar system that powers their home. The Navajo Nation family has no access to traditional electricity. Enlarge photo

Jessica Riehl/Special to The Durango Herald

Daily chores around the house for Maria and Erika Johnson are different than many American children. In addition to taking care of their pets and cleaning their rooms, the girls are tasked with monitoring the battery levels of the wind-solar system that powers their home. The Navajo Nation family has no access to traditional electricity.

Most American children never think twice about flipping on the light. They rarely, if ever, give thought to the electrical outlet on the wall from which power for their digital devices flows. And they couldn’t imagine the idea of completing homework each night by candlelight.

And yet, children such as Maria, 9, and Erika, 6, and their parents, Monica and Nathanial Johnson, who live on a New Mexico portion of the Navajo reservation, don’t have to imagine it. That’s how they live.

“It’s hard to get the kids ready for school by lamplight,” said Nathanial Johnson, the children’s father. He’s lived 32 years of his life without electricity.

A report in 2000 from the Energy Information Administration said 14 percent of Native American homes on reservation lands had no access to electricity and 1.4 percent of all U.S. households had no access to power. Nearly 37 percent of homes on the Navajo reservation had no electricity, the report said.

And in the Johnsons’ case, there’s the added irony that electricity flows freely through transmission lines visible from their home.

“We can’t tap into them,” Nathanial Johnson said, staring at the lines.

It costs about $30,000 per mile to tie a home into the grid – money the necklace-beading mother and father who does contract work building wireless cell towers in the area do not have.

Instead, they rejoice for the small hybrid solar-wind system recently installed in their yard.

The rent-to-own system, which includes some battery storage and is partly subsidized by a grant through the Navajo Nation, costs them $75 per month. It provides enough energy to power a small fridge, a few lights and, occasionally, a television. Other power needs, such as charging the couple’s cellphones, are met with the help of family and friends who live elsewhere.

“We can watch half a movie now,” Maria Johnson said.

The stored power tends to run out before the end.

But they don’t dwell on the downsides. The Johnson family are happy to have the limited power.

“Now, sometimes I can bead into the night,” Monica Johnson said.

Regular checks of the solar panel to ensure a warning light hasn’t turned red to indicate the stored reserves are low have made the family incredibly energy conscious. There is never more than one light on in the home at once. And no one stands too long with the fridge door open.

“When you live your entire life without electricity, man this is good,” Nathanial Johnson said.

hscofield@durangoherald.com

Monica Johnson’s mother, Esther, rests outside the family home on the Navajo Nation reservation in New Mexico. A combination solar-wind energy array system works in the background to capture the sun’s energy and convert it to limited electrical power for the family home. The home does not have access to traditional electricity. Enlarge photo

Jessica Riehl/Special to The Durango Herald

Monica Johnson’s mother, Esther, rests outside the family home on the Navajo Nation reservation in New Mexico. A combination solar-wind energy array system works in the background to capture the sun’s energy and convert it to limited electrical power for the family home. The home does not have access to traditional electricity.

A rent-to-own solar-wind hybrid power unit installed last year at the Johnson family home on the Navajo Nation reservation in New Mexico allowed the family to have a refrigerator for the first time. Maria Johnson, 9, details how the new appliance has changed the way the family eats and lives. She no longer wakes to find the milk for her morning cereal spoiled and treats such as ice cream and cold condiments now are available, she said. Enlarge photo

Jessica Riehl/Special to The Durango Herald

A rent-to-own solar-wind hybrid power unit installed last year at the Johnson family home on the Navajo Nation reservation in New Mexico allowed the family to have a refrigerator for the first time. Maria Johnson, 9, details how the new appliance has changed the way the family eats and lives. She no longer wakes to find the milk for her morning cereal spoiled and treats such as ice cream and cold condiments now are available, she said.