Volunteers bring first ever electricity to families on remote Navajo Nation

Fannie Shorthair, who is in her late 70s, has waited her entire life for electricity to come to her home on the Navajo reservation. As a child, her mother used to reassure her that “it would come,” eventually.

Finally, she and others living in the remote and vast Navajo Nation are getting power for the first time ever. Volunteer crews from 24 public utilities in 12 states including Arizona are bringing electricity to thousands of homes in the Four Corners region that contains 75 percent of all people in America living without power.

The volunteer initiative, called Light Up Navajo, has plans for 15 projects to bring electricity to hundreds of households this year. Of the 55,000 homes located on the 27,000-square-mile reservation, approximately 15,000 do not have electricity.

Public power utilities including Salt River Project (SRP) in Arizona are donating manpower, equipment and materials to put in the needed transmission lines and infrastructure. SRP is sending 26 workers in rotating crews to work for three weeks on the project, said Kathleen Mascarenas, an SRP spokesperson.

The pilot initiative is being organized by the American Public Power Association to support electrification efforts by the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, the utility serving the Navajo Nation. The association is the voice of not-for-profit, community-owned utilities that power 2,000 towns and cities nationwide. It advocates for public power before the federal government to protect the interests of the more than 49 million customers and 93,000 employees.

“It is shocking that in this day and age, there are still so many homes in the U.S. without electricity,” said Mike Hyland, the association’s senior vice president of engineering and operations. “The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority has worked hard in recent years to power 3,000 homes. Now, with help from the national public power community, they can do much more. We are touched by the support being offered from so many of our member utilities.”

SRP’s first wave of line crews began setting miles of wooden distribution poles and stringing conductor through Leupp, Bird Springs, Ganado and Steamboat, Arizona, on Saturday. On Monday, four families were hooked up with electricity for the first time ever including the Kennys in Ganado, Arizona.

Rethema and Devayne Kenny were “overjoyed” after waiting for nine years to turn on the lights, said SRP spokesperson Kathleen Mascarenas.

“She said a refrigerator was going to be her first purchase,” Mascarenas said. “She’s been feeding her children dry food. Now, they can store fresh fruit and vegetables for their  5-month-old baby and 4-year-old son.”

For Shorthair, when her power kicks in for the first time, she plans to read a book by lamp light, make toast and watch TV.

“It overwhelms my heart that all these people from all these different places want to help me,” said Shorthair, whose lives in Teec Nos Pos that is on the reservation in northeast Arizona.  

For more information on the Light Up Navajo project, visit, PublicPower.org/LightUpNavajo.

Victoria Harker

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