With the Rural Electrification Act of 1936, the United States federal government tried to erase disparities in energy access between rural and urban areas. Suddenly, hard-to-reach communities were electrified, folded into the broader US economy.
But many Native American tribes were left out of this effort. On the Navajo Nation, that exclusion still reverberates today. More than 15,000 homes on the reservation lack electricity, accounting for 75% of the unelectrified homes in the US, according to the American Public Power Association.
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“There are tribes that don’t have access to the grid because they weren’t in the planning process and weren’t considered,” Wahleah Johns, cofounder of Native Renewables, told Global Citizen. “That’s environmental racism: when planning is only for certain populations and not for First Nations and tribal nations.”
She said that the lack of energy impacts every aspect of life for affected families. Without electricity, homes often lack running water, lighting, cooling, heating, and refrigeration. Many families end up buying gasoline, propane, or kerosene for their electrical needs, a last resort that is both costly and exposes them to pollution.
Linking up to the grid, meanwhile, is out of the question for most families.
“We have our own tribal utility, but the cost to extend power lines can range between $27,000 to $75,000 or more,” Johns said. “That makes it hard to access a loan to extend a power line to their home.”
Johns, who has years of experience in the renewable energy industry, has long witnessed the injustice of this situation. Along with other Native women in the industry, she launched Native Renewables, a solar energy provider that aims to electrify every home on the Navajo Nation with off-grid solutions.
“We have over 300 days of sunlight throughout the year,” she said. “We’re in a prime area to develop and manage our own power.”
Native Renewables goes above and beyond a simple utility company. The organization employs Navajo tribal members, holds educational workshops on the benefits of renewable energy, promotes economic independence, and seeks to empower tribal members.
As the community gets electrified, entrepreneurship, innovation, and solidarity can flourish, she said.
“This technology can be part of our ability to show self-determination and to show our sovereignty,” she said. “A family can manage and own their power that doesn't have to come from a utility or some other entity regulating it. They can actually be a homestead that can generate their own power and live in a way that is in line with our values as Native people.”
Native Renewables is still in the initial phases of outreach and marketing, but early projects have so far been successful and have improved the economic security of families.
“We’ve supplied four homes and have seen a great improvement for families living in rural areas," she said. “We’re delivering a product because it can save people money but also bring joy and comfort."
While solar energy requires upfront costs for installation, and other costs for upkeep and maintenance, it eventually pays for itself, saving homeowners money in the long-run. Families can even band together to create larger, communal installations that reduce overall costs, Johns said.
"That's a key piece that helps to liberate ourselves from the structures that aren’t working for us and decentralize the power grid," she said.
"We have these big utilities that control our rate of power and how to generate that power, which usually comes from a very dirty source," she added. "We can plant seeds for our future generations so energy is collective and decentralized rather than what it is today."
Native Renewables is part of a larger shift in energy production. As climate change intensifies around the world, calls to abandon fossil fuels are only growing, along with investments in clean energy sources. In the US, renewable energy consumption surpassed coal for the first time ever in 2019. Global renewable energy production is expected to increase by 50% between 2019 and 2024.
Johns said that climate change is already impacting the Navajo Nation.
“The Colorado River and the Rio Grande river don’t produce as much water. You see a lot of lakes throughout the West drying out because of the drought,” she said. "In the summer, we have the monsoon season that comes through and waters our land for vegetation for livestock that we raise, for the produce we grow — corn, squash, beans, food — and when that doesn’t happen it makes it really hard on the farmers and ranchers.”
She also said that bark beetles, an insect whose range has been expanded by warmer temperatures, have destroyed vast stretches of piñon trees.
Johns said the biggest obstacle facing Native Renewables is investment. Many of the families who lack electricity also live below the poverty line and need subsidies to pay for solar systems.
"We're looking for mission-aligned impact investors to help us get to scale," she said. "We just need investment to help to buy all of the equipment to do several hundred systems a year."
She said that the team has spent the past few years carefully planning, training maintenance crews, and demonstrating proof of concept.
Now they're ready to electrify Navajo Nation and provide a global template for sustainable, community-based development.
"I was born and raised on Navajo Nation," Johns said. "We love our community so much. We have these ideas for solutions that can address energy access and a lot of it is referencing the sunlight that's of really powerful cultural significance.
"The sun plays a significant role in our teachings as Navajo people," she said.