The Solar Trailer That Could: Energy Innovation Inside Navajo Nation

In Zuni Pueblo, New Mexico, one young man leads the Navajo Nation into the energy game with a mobile solar plant.

It’s early afternoon and Brett Isaac, a barrel-chested 27-year-old whose soft-spokenness gives the impression of a gentle giant, is explaining the purpose of the solar trailer hitched to the back of his truck.
“One thing we never think about is that each of us produces energy,” Isaac, renewable energy Project Manager for the Shonto Community Development Corporation in Navajo Nation, tells a group of adolescent summer campers gathered against a middle school wall. “We produce heat and we produce activity. There’s no reason why we couldn’t produce energy in our own homes.”
We’re in Zuni, a small town within the Zuni Pueblo reservation just south of Gallup in Western New Mexico. As part of a weeklong Zuni Enrichment Project Summer Camp, the elementary and middle schoolers will be camping on a remote ranch for a few days, during which time the solar trailer will be their only source of electricity. Meant to promote a healthy lifestyle and provide valuable education for Zuni youth who otherwise would lack access or means to attend summer camp, the time on the ranch will primarily be used to familiarize them with Zuni traditions. The Zuni, a Pueblo peoples, have lived in their present location along the Zuni River for over 3,000 years. Currently they number around 10,000—the vast majority live on the reservation.
“I know, coming from a Navajo community, that we all live in spread-out areas,” Isaac continues, his brow glistening in the mid-day sun. “It’s hard to put lines to every single house. This provides that option for people to live and practice in traditional ways. They can live far away from everyone else, herd their sheep, ride their horses and still go home and be able to have lighting.”
The kids have started to drift off and Lea Lewis, a program staff member, interjects to regain their attention.
“Have you ever heard your mom say, ‘Turn that thing off. It's using all the electricity. What’s the matter with you?’” The wilting children stiffen up as Lewis continues. “I hope that when you grow up you’ll have a solar system like this because is doesn’t cost you any money.”
The Navajo and other Native American tribes in the Southwest have been getting by for a long time by using less energy and paying more for it—but not for want of resources. Even though the biggest coal-powered generating station in the Southwest, the Navajo Generating Station, is located on Navajo land, the power goes either to Las Vegas or to Arizona’s metropolitan areas. Many of those living in the vicinity of the NGS or other Navajo power plants, often employees of the plants, don’t have power themselves, and when they do, it’s exorbitantly priced because of transmission and utility fees—think peak energy price multipliers of up to 40 times.
In response to Lewis’ reminder to the children that electricity is costly, I overhear a Zuni staff member talking about her recent $300 monthly electricity bill (average reservation households use far less electricity than other American households).
Aside from being blessed with valuable energy resources under the ground they’ve called home for centuries, the Navajo also have an exceptionally abundant energy source shining down on them—they get a lot of sun. If exploited correctly, this moment could represent a golden opportunity for people who have been subjected to a long history of resource exploitation. Minerals like coal and uranium were notoriously taken from Navajo land by outside mining companies in the second half of the 20th century without any account for the resulting environmental or archeological damage.

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