Navajo Nation

A landscape on the Navajo Nation. About 15,000 homes on the 27,000-square-mile reservation have never had electric power.

A popular effort that last year brought together utility workers from around the nation to extend electric power to hundreds of Navajo Nation homes is another casualty of the COVID-19 pandemic, at least temporarily.

The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority in a March 13 news release said that due to the virus, it is postponing Light Up Navajo II, which had been scheduled to launch in April. The program, a first-of-its-kind American Public Power Association mutual aid effort, in its 2019 pilot phase successfully brought power to 233 households that had never before had electricity (see CEM No. 1541). This year NTUA hopes to connect approximately 300 additional homes to its grid.

The utility will determine in mid-April whether to start the 12-week project later this spring or delay it until fall, the release said.

Deenise Becenti, government and public affairs manager for NTUA, in an interview with California Energy Markets said the program had more than 390 applicants this year, but only has funding for about 300 homes. The tribal utility hopes a third phase in 2021 will address the applicant backlog and make further progress on the eventual goal of bringing electricity to the approximately 15,000 homes that still lack it on the sparsely populated, 27,000-square-mile reservation.

Becenti said 34 utilities from as far away as Massachusetts planned to send crews for this year's effort, compared with 28 last year. A profile by the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers inspired linemen to make inquiries with their companies about participating in Phase 2, she said.

News of the project also spread by word of mouth in the utility industry, inspiring increased participation from both public power and investor-owned utilities that see it as an opportunity for public service as well as training. Linemen from other regions often don't have many opportunities to climb poles, Becenti explained. Last year's program offered many benefits to participating crews, she said, "but the biggest one was getting to see families turn on the light switch and use electricity in their homes for the first time."

She said it is especially helpful to have utilities from nearby areas participate, as their crews are more familiar with the terrain and environment, but that NTUA is grateful so many crews are willing to travel great distances to offer their services. Utilities were generous not only with time and labor but also with their heavy equipment, she added. Some of the faraway companies that sent crews rented equipment to have on-site and ready when they arrived. Equipment rental companies often provided discounts for the project.

"Light Up Navajo was built on teamwork and partnership," NTUA General Manager Walter Haase said in the release. "It is our hope that the utilities that signed up will still be a part of this meaningful, life-changing project."

The Navajo Nation on March 19 reported 14 confirmed positive cases of COVID-19, most of which were reported at the Kayenta and Chinle health clinics in northeastern Arizona. The Navajo Health Command Operations Center issued a public health emergency order that included a shelter-in-place directive for the Chilchinbeto community in Navajo County, Arizona. Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez in a release said the order might be applied to the entire nation if COVID-19 reports become more widespread. Nez on March 18 held a press conference to ask tourists and non-Navajo individuals to respect its borders and not visit during the crisis.

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Associate Editor - California Energy Markets

Abigail Sawyer grew up in northwestern New Mexico near two massive coal-fired power plants. She spent many hours gazing out the car window at transmission lines on family road trips across the Southwest and now reports on the region from San Francisco.