One of their own gives the gift of electricity to her Native American tribe.

hopi.jpg Debby Tewa   Courtesy of Debby Tewa

Working in a corner of the US where turning on a light switch is wrapped in political, cultural, and economic ramifications, the 20 years Debby Tewa has spent bringing alternative energy to Native-American reservations have been a journey of practical idealism. Until age 10, Tewa grew up without electricity, water or a telephone, in a three-room stone house on the Hopi Reservation in Arizona. As an electrician who has worked with solar power since 1985, she has helped to bring photovoltaic electrical power to the sparsely-populated and bureaucratically-entangled Hopi and Navajo reservations in Arizona and New Mexico, where running power lines is often prohibitively expensive. She is currently a contractor with the Sandia National Laboratory’s Tribal Energy Program.

What is the current electricity situation for reservations in the Southwest?
It is estimated that the dwellings of 18,000 families on the Navajo Nation are not electrified. And for Hopi it is estimated that at least 2,500 families’ dwellings are not electrified.

Many people want grid power, but it is costly to string power lines on any reservation. In Indian country there are so many different policies that blanket the reservations. For example, on my reservation, the Hopi lands, you have right-of-way issues. Then there are archeological clearances and environmental clearances. The process is lengthy.

And no doubt, the cost is high.
Beyond the policy problems, it is estimated that it costs $27,000 per mile to string power lines, so going off-grid makes sense economically. For $5,000-$7,000, we can put in solar-powered electricity within two days, enabling a family to have enough power to run lights, a TV, sewing machine, kitchen appliances, maybe a vacuum cleaner, and small power tools.

How did you get into this work?
I began as a commercial electrician, then switched to residential work. When the Hopi Foundation set up the Hopi Solar Electric Enterprise, I began working with them.

What’s the mission of the Hopi Solar Electric Enterprise?
It began as a non-profit organization bringing solar energy to the Hopi and later to the Navajo, Zuni and non-Indian customers. It used grants that supported startup costs, but the whole idea was to create a self-sustaining organization.
Our office was solar powered, so we offered a working example, where people could see the solar panels, charge controllers, inverters and batteries. We also had a whole system on wheels that we loaned to people to use for a week so that they could understand how everything worked.
Being out on the reservation, people had to save for down payments. It wasn’t like we were installing systems left and right, so it took a long time to wean ourselves from the grants. The program started in 1985 and in 2000 it became a private company, NativeSUN, LLC.

Any examples of how members of these communities have responded to your work?
I had a 95-year-old neighbor who had purchased a small system, 35-watt solar panel and two batteries.  She only had one light but she couldn’t believe she had power with a flick of a switch. She was elated, and I think it was wonderful that she came to the technology at her age.

Does photovoltaic electricity become an invisible part of everyday life the way electricity from the grid does?
With off-grid solar electric systems, the people who use these systems don’t take electricity for granted. They have to be very energy-conscious both in terms of their use and their awareness of the system, including how much energy is stored in the batteries. But the system also makes a lot more sense to them because they are involved with it. It encourages customers to conserve and to learn to budget, especially in the shorter winter days.

The focus of your work has changed some recently, right?
Now I’m working with Sandia Labs, helping provide technical assistance to tribes that have been awarded Department of Energy funding. Sandia has a number of specialized labs. We act as facilitators to help tribes make their own decisions. We provide knowledge and expertise to support tribes’ efforts to develop energy capacity and strategies for implementing plans. Using renewable technology can help with tribal financial stability and economic development.

What are some specific projects you work on?
We work with the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority. We have been testing and suggesting ways to improve their photovoltaic (PV) system. It is like a plug-and-play system. The system is assembled and mounted on a bracket. The PV system is then towed to the customer’s home and dropped on site. Then electricians just run wires into the home for power. We are also providing technical assistance with their wind-development project.

Are you still working with your own tribe?
Hopi is exploring their wind resources too, so I have an opportunity to work with my tribe again to help with their wind program. They are doing anemometer studies and looking into feasibility from the data they are collecting. If it proves feasible we would provide electricity to the transmission lines and provide revenue to the tribe.

What progress have you seen in 20 years working with alternative energies?
My experience working at the grassroots level has taught me to be patient. Alternative energy does not only apply to hardware, it applies to policies. I still have plenty to learn and I hope the next generation is learning about renewable technology in classrooms so that they can carry on the mission for a cleaner environment.

Originally published January 24, 2006

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