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Fort Lewis College professor secures funding to improve access to electricity on Navajo Nation

An estimated 32% of homes in the Shonto Chapter are said to be without electricity
Fort Lewis College professors estimates that around 30 homes need electricity in the Shonto community. (Courtesy of Fort Lewis College)

A Fort Lewis College professor secured federal funding to help provide access to electricity for a chapter of the Navajo Nation.

Laurie Williams, a physics and engineering professor, is putting $100,000 in award money toward FLC’s Village Aid Project’s partnership with the Navajo Nation Solar Initiative. The plan is to help individuals and families in the Shonto Chapter of the Navajo Nation, located in Shonto, Arizona, gain access to electricity.

“What we found out was there was a gap in the knowledge of who had electricity. They know community members don't have electricity but didn't have a list of who did and didn't,” Williams said.

The funding is part of $15 million Energizing Rural Communities Prize challenge, which is an arm of the $1 billion Energy Improvements in Rural or Remote Areas Program, created by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations.

The ERA Program supports projects that improve the resilience, reliability, safety, availability and environmental performance of energy systems in rural or remote communities with populations of 10,000 people or fewer.

Currently, an estimated 32% of households on the Navajo Nation do not have electricity, said Williams.

The money will go toward efforts to map homes in the Shonto Chapter that do not have electricity.

Williams has worked extensively with the Navajo Nation, building off-grid power systems. In the last year, she developed a more formal partnership with the Shonto Chapter.

The first phase will map all of the homes in the community to see which need electricity and where transmission lines are. There will be a Village Aid Project student team that will assist Williams.

The Village Aid Project is known for traveling to places like Myanmar, Ecuador and Nicaragua to develop clean water systems.

She wanted to help communities that were struggling to access basic necessities nearby, which inspired her to develop a domestic arm of the project called the Solar Initiative.

Williams said the power issue in the Navajo Nation is multifaceted. Part of the problem is geographical isolation.

“Homes tend to be located very far apart, and there aren’t really centralized communities that are easy to serve with electric transmission lines,” she said.

Another issue is that the land is leased by the United States government. In order to have services like electricity and water, homeowners must have what is called a site lease.

“The process of obtaining a home site lease is very lengthy and also expensive,” Williams said.

Based on her rough estimate of Shonto homes without electricity, she estimates about 30 homes don’t have electricity. This is why it’s important for her to get a definitive number.

Williams said that proposals for the prize challenge’s second phase are due in a year. A committee will evaluate what she and the Village Aid team have accomplished to determine whether the project will receive $200,000 in additional funding.