In This Issue
Winter Issue of The Bridge on Frontiers of Engineering
December 25, 2021 Volume 51 Issue 4
The NAE’s Frontiers of Engineering symposium series forged ahead despite the challenges of the pandemic, with virtual and hybrid events in 2021. This issue features selected papers from early-career engineers reporting on new developments in a variety of areas.

Enabling Residential-Scale Energy Systems for Native American Communities

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

Author: Suzanne L. Singer

Residential photovoltaic systems can provide affordable, much-needed electricity for thousands of Native American families that lack grid-tied electricity.

Native American tribes have historically developed fossil fuel and ­mineral resources on their lands to provide electricity to major US cities. Yet many tribal members still do not have the benefit of grid-tied electricity.

In 2000 the Energy Information Administration reported that 75 percent of all Native American homes without electricity were on the Navajo reservation, which covers approximately 27,000 square miles spanning Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah (EIA 2000). An estimated 15,000 of the nearly 50,000 homes—one in three—on the reservation do not have grid-tied electricity (Gallucci 2019).[1] Many of these families rely on batteries for flashlights, kerosene or propane for lighting (figure 1), and gasoline for generators. For those that do have energy, it can be costly—some families spend up to 50 percent of their income on electricity (Begay 2018).

On-the-Ground Solutions

On-the-ground, Indigenous-led, community-based organizations are leading efforts to build sustainable programs to meet tribal community needs for energy (as well as food and water).

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Indigenous-Led Services

Native Renewables Inc. (NRI) is a nonprofit organization founded by two Navajo women to empower families to own and manage their power as a path to energy independence. NRI is growing integrated programs to solve energy access issues for thousands of families of the Hopi and Navajo Nations. The NRI staff are Hopi and Navajo tribal members who live in the communities they support, speak traditional languages, have experience living the off-grid lifestyle, and understand how to navigate infrastructure challenges of unpaved roads and gaps in cell phone and internet access.

Indigenous people have traditional knowledge of the sun that guides relationships, everyday practices, and cultural stories. This knowledge includes a concept of harmony and balance that is encompassed in the word Hozho. NRI wants its programs to help bring Hozho to the homes of families they support.

Power from the Sun

The Southwestern region of the United States has the best solar resource potential in the country (Sengupta et al. 2018). With the decreasing cost of solar installations, particularly from modules and batteries, solar power technology is the perfect solution for families living off-grid (Feldman et al. 2021). Off-grid solar photovoltaic (PV) systems can incorporate battery storage to support electricity needs at night or on cloudy days.

NRI has designed and installed 2.4 kilowatt (kW) off-grid residential PV systems to provide electricity for refrigerators (less than 11 cubic feet in volume), lights, and the charging of phones, computers, and satellite internet (figure 2). These systems also incorporate battery storage to support 3 days of autonomy without charging. Systems are mounted on frames that sit on the ground for homes that may not have updated roofs with good structural integrity. 

The most identified need for families is a PV system large enough to power a refrigerator so they can store food and medicine. Electricity is also importantly needed for children who rely on tablets and laptops for their education as well as people of all ages who need to charge cell phones for communication and to power satellite devices for remote work or education. There are many other benefits:

  • Refrigeration may result in less frequent trips, which sometimes take hours, to procure food and ice.
  • Solar-powered lights are used in spaces for cooking, working, or leisure, eliminating the need to buy fuel for lanterns.
  • For families that use generators, solar power can drastically reduce the amount of fuel consumed. In one case, a family who used a generator a few days per week was able to reduce their use to a few times per year, reducing both their fuel expenditures and greenhouse gas emissions. 

The size of the solar modules and battery storage ­dictate what energy loads are allowable to properly maintain the PV components for their lifetime, so educating families on the benefits and limitations of off-grid solar power is instrumental to the ­sustainability of their ­power. Before installation, NRI conducts an energy load survey with the family to tabulate the watts of loads, time(s) of use, and frequency of use. The total Watt-hours per day (W-h/d) of all loads will show whether energy consumption exceeds or falls within the ­threshold of allowable consumption (e.g., 3000 W-h/d). If it exceeds the threshold, the family will need to adapt their energy habits to align with the capabilities of the PV system. Education and continued communication with the families can also reduce maintenance needs.

Families with an off-grid PV system have energy independence: They have the power to manage their energy and are not affected by grid-related power outages. They also reap benefits in time and money saved and a safer, more reliable source of energy and light. 

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A critical component to sustainable programs is to invest in local tribal members. NRI works to build off-grid solar technical knowledge, creating training opportunities and paving the way to a solar energy career. Investing in a local workforce creates job opportunities and can ensure that technical support is available within tribal communities and that projects are implemented by Native-led organizations and businesses.

In 2019 NRI held its first in-person workforce training in the community of Hardrock, Arizona. The goal was to train 10 Navajo/Hopi tribal members to install and maintain a 2.1 kW off-grid battery-based solar system, hosting the training at local community ­centers and removing the cost burden associated with ­training—there was no fee to participate, and participants received meals and financial support for travel expenses (some of the participants drove more than 100 miles one way).

Coordination with the chapter leadership[2] and local nonprofit partners was instrumental to the success of the program. The chapter leaders not only streamlined the process with their approval but also invested their time by sitting in on part of the training and then launching solar projects in their communities; and a local non­profit partner, Tó Nizhóní Ání (“Sacred Water Speaks”), provided resources such as classroom space, advertising, and meals.

The 7-week program included meeting 2–4 days/week to learn PV theory in a classroom setting and hands-on training for participants to eventually build their own 55 watt PV system. A portion of the class time was spent on professional development (e.g., resume writing, LinkedIn, mock interviews). Invited guest speakers shared their experiences working in tribal communities, empowering entrepreneurs, and leading renewable energy projects and energy policy efforts. All 10 participants completed the program and earned their OSHA 10 certification.

In 2021 NRI started hosting virtual training in response to the covid-19 pandemic and limitations on in-person gatherings. The goal was to provide an off-grid foundation before beginning hands-on training. The cost of training was heavily subsidized for the 10 invited participants, who were asked to commit to spending 30 hours over 4 weeks at their own pace to complete the training.

The six participants who fulfilled all requirements received a certificate of completion and were invited to continue their hands-on training. One unfortunate challenge for some tribal members is not having high-speed internet access to watch educational videos or take online quizzes.


Both resource and infrastructure challenges suggest opportunities to develop energy systems that integrate electricity and energy efficiency, while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Innovative, interdisciplinary programs are needed to solve energy access issues in an affordable and sustainable way. One potential solution is to provide financing options that incorporate financial literacy and non­traditional lending. Advances in technology, ­materials, and manufacturing processes can also improve the affordability of critical needs for families, including efficient appliances and internet access.

Policies can promote a clean energy economy, climate resilience, and equitable energy access for Indigenous communities. They can also enhance data privacy, support infrastructure improvements, and expand opportunities for tribal leadership and community organization input.

Increasing investment in Indigenous communities (e.g., access to capital, technical assistance, skills building) is necessary to continue building a thriving economy.


Begay SK. 2018. Navajo residential solar energy access as a global model. The Electricity Journal 31(6):9–15.

EIA [US Energy Information Administration]. 2000. Energy Consumption and Renewable Energy Development Potential on Indian Lands (SR/CNEAF/2000-01). Washington.

Feldman D, Ramasamy V, Fu R, Ramdas A, Desai J, Margolis R. 2021. US Solar Photovoltaic System Cost Benchmark: Q1 2020 (NREL/TP-6A20-77324). Golden CO: National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

Gallucci M. 2019. Plugging in the Navajo Nation: A pilot program brought grid power to 200 homes, but there are 15,000 to go. IEEE Spectrum 56(6):6–7.

Sengupta MYX, Lopez A, Habte A, Maclaurin G, Shelby J. 2018. The National Solar Radiation Data Base (NSRDB). Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews 89(6):51–60.


[1]  US Census, 2015-2019 American Community Survey 5-Year Estimates: Navajo Nation Reservation and Off-Reservation Trust Land, AZ--NM--UT – ­Housing (

[2]  The Navajo Nation is divided into 110 local governance centers known as chapters.

About the Author:Suzanne Singer is ­executive director and cofounder of Native Renewables, Inc.