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On Reservations, a Spark of Innovation

Utilities: Most Native Americans cannot afford the cost of hooking up to the power grid. A federally funded program aims to provide them electricity through solar generators.


DILKON, Ariz. — On the breezy grass plains where generations of Joanne Jackson's family have been born and raised, a wood bungalow with faded tan paint is alive with electricity.

The three-room house was built years ago in this western part of the Navajo Nation using her husband's veteran's benefits. And though it had white plastic outlet plates on the walls and lights in the ceiling, they were merely decorative--until September.

It was then that Jackson, 62, and her husband, Raymond, 82, became the first inhabitants of the Navajo Nation to get power through a solar generator program whose founders hope to eventually deliver power throughout American Indian reservations.

Of the 37,000 occupied structures on the Navajo reservation, only 9% have electricity and 14% have utility gas, according to 1990 Census Bureau statistics. Most Navajos cook and heat with wood, coal or fuel oil.

Large spreads of open land frequently separate the homes on the reservation, which at 4.8 million acres covers an area slightly smaller than New Jersey.

The rambling expanses make hooking into the power grid eye-poppingly expensive. Stringing power lines costs roughly $30,000 per mile, according to Arizona Public Service--an impossible sum for most families in this region where the unemployment rate hovers around 50%.

By comparison, a one-kilowatt solar generator, which can provide for basic needs, costs roughly $10,000.

The solar systems are ideal for Indian reservations because they are less expensive than power lines and don't tear up the landscape, said Gregory Kiss, president of Native American Photovoltaics, the nonprofit corporation that helped install the Jacksons' system.

The corporation, launched last June with a $220,000 federal grant, started a lease-to-own program in the southwestern portion of the reservation, offering families one-kilowatt systems. The solar generators provide enough power to fuel a refrigerator, lights, television, water pump and computer for an average family of four.

It costs the Jacksons nothing to own the generator--it was installed so they can show others how it works--but normally a one-kilowatt system would cost $50 per month through the program. A family would agree to a three-year lease and, if they choose to buy it at that time, the money paid toward the lease would be applied to the purchase price.

The program, still in its infancy, should have 20 systems installed in the next six months, said Kiss, a New York architect who specializes in integrating solar systems into buildings.

Other government programs and individual homeowners have installed thousands of solar generators on the reservation over the years, Kiss said, but many generators do not function today because they were never maintained.

The maintenance required for the systems is minor. The solar-charged batteries, which are similar to golf cart batteries, need water and occasional service, Kiss said. But without that maintenance, the systems die. In some cases, the Navajo have not been taught how to maintain the systems.

To combat that and provide some badly needed jobs on the reservation, the corporation will train unemployed Navajo to service and maintain the systems periodically. Kiss is hoping to eventually create a self-sustaining industry.

"We're trying to make the program behave like a distributed service," he said.

So far, the Jacksons, who received their generator as a demonstration system, are thrilled.

Joanne Jackson has a refrigerator for the first time, sparing her trip after trip in an old pickup truck 10 miles down the dusty, rutted road from her home to the market. She keeps a few tomatoes and soda cans in the small refrigerator, smiling proudly as she shows it off to visitors.

"I like the whole system," Jackson, who speaks primarily Navajo, said through a translator. "I have been really wanting a refrigerator."

Anna M. Frazier, whose duties in this Navajo community of 2,000 are similar to that of mayor, said many of the roughly 1,200 Dilkon residents have no power. They use lanterns for light, wood stoves and propane for heat and cooking.

"That's just how we've always lived," Frazier said. "To have electricity, we had to adjust our lifestyle."

But she and others say electricity does provide convenience and safety for Navajo families.

At minimum, it means Navajo children can do their homework at night and maybe one day access a computer, Frazier said.

For Jackson, it means her husband can safely descend the rough wood steps at the front of the house by porch light at night. It's a minor convenience in an urban area but an enormous help here--where the nearest street light is 30 miles away.

"The porch light is on," Joanne Jackson said. "That's one thing I like."

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