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Solar, wind project brings electricity to Navajo homes

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By Alysa Landry -- The Daily Times

SHIPROCK, N.M. (AP) - The drone of a small wind turbine is the only sound punctuating the stillness five miles south of Shiprock. A few houses dot the horizon, and an occasional car passes by on Navajo Route 36 - the only signs of civilization Denton Blueeyes sees from his home near Chaco Wash.

Blueeyes, 74, grew up on the Navajo Nation, and until two years ago, he never had electricity in his home.

''I've been living here for years and years,'' Blueeyes, who does not speak English, said through an interpreter. ''We never had power or running water or heat.''

On a clear day, the retired engineer for Navajo Engineering Construction Authority can see the power lines that serve a nearby community, but in the 30 years he's lived in his one-bedroom house, the promise of light and heat hadn't come closer than two miles.

Now, Blueeyes is one of about 350 residents to rent a renewable energy unit from the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority. At the cost of about $80 per month, Blueeyes and his wife can plug in a television and a lamp.

''I used to use kerosene lamps for light,'' Blueeyes said. ''Now the lamps are packed away, and I don't have to take them out except in the barn.''

The energy package includes a 10-foot solar panel and a wind turbine that together produce about 2 kilowatts per day - enough to power a small house or double-wide trailer, said Melvin Duncan, an electrician for NTUA's Shiprock District.

The unit uses natural energy to charge two car batteries, he said. As long as the batteries are charged, electricity flows into the house. Technicians maintain the units, adjusting the solar panels every season to accommodate the sun's changing position in the sky.

The unit relieves some Third World conditions faced by residents of the remote areas on the reservation, but there are limits, said Larry Ahasteen, an NTUA renewable energy specialist.

The batteries can take as long as eight hours to charge on a sunny day, and when they're drained to 20 percent capacity, the unit shuts off.

''It only powers a coffee pot in the morning, and maybe lights and the TV,'' he said. ''We really stress to the families to be conservative and manage their load. It can't power a hair dryer, a range, a toaster or a water heater.''

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Customers can supplement the power with a gas-operated generator, Ahasteen said, but even with that, the unit falls short of some customers' expectations.

Blueeyes still hauls water for drinking and bathing and for his small herd of sheep. He still uses an outhouse perched 50 yards from the house and still heats his home with coal.

He's building a cistern next to the house, and he had hoped the solar and wind power would help pump the water inside.

''I would still have to haul water and put it into the tank, but I wanted the unit to pressurize it,'' he said. ''I was told the power will not be enough. There are still limitations, and I have to realize that.''

Even so, the unit provides a service that likely won't be available to remote areas in the near future since the cost to run a power line tops $30,000 per mile, said Herb Beyale, field superintendent in the Shiprock NTUA office.

''It's not too feasible to supply electricity to just one home, a home right smack in the middle of nowhere,'' he said.

''It's more convenient to set up a solar unit. Blueeyes probably won't get power lines any time soon,'' Ahasteen said.

The waiting period for electricity in homes on the Navajo Nation is decades long, with about 18,000 households in line.

Only a handful of homes have access to the solar and wind units. Seven households in the Shiprock District are renting units, but the need is much greater, Ahasteen said.

''We haven't really promoted the program,'' he said. ''There would be an influx of people asking for it, and we don't have the amount we need to deploy them into the field.''

The need for power on reservations is great, said Jonathan Cogan, energy information specialist with the U.S. Department of Energy. More than 14 percent of reservation households have no access to electricity, he said, compared to less than 2 percent of all U.S. households.

Solar and wind units are a temporary solution, Ahasteen said. The NTUA is looking for grants to run power lines to rural parts of the reservation.

''We want to get that power out to the families,'' he said. ''Once we get power to the families, we change the concept of the family. We give them refrigeration, TV, heat, and that changes things. That's the vision we have.''