Bringing DC Solar Systems to Native American Reservations

A solar panel installed on the roof of a home in a Hopi village. | Living Energy Farm
A DC solar panel installed on the roof of a home in a Hopi village.
Living Energy Farm
Published On
Jan 11, 2022

Inequitable energy access has long been a challenge faced by Native American communities. About 10% of the Navajo Nation reservation lacks access to electricity, while 40% doesn’t have access to running water, according to a 2019 article from NPR.

Bringing energy to reservations can be difficult. They are often located in rural areas far from grid access and span over vast distances, and Native communities often lack financial resources to become connected to the electric grid. Many young people move off reservations to find job security and economic opportunity.

Over the years, several programs and nonprofits have aimed to increase energy access on reservations, sometimes through renewable energy. Off-grid solar industry programs have not always worked as intended—solar systems break down and are too expensive to fix, AC systems require lead-acid batteries that sometimes only last a few years and “broken and abandoned solar junk is scattered across the reservation,” according to Living Energy Farm (LEF), an intentional community and environmental education center located in Louisa, Va., founded by Alexis Zeigler and Debbie Piesen.

In February and March 2020, LEF installed 47 DC solar systems they created, called Iron Sun Cabin Kits, in the Diné (Navajo) and Hopi reservations in Tsaille, Ariz., home to the largest population in the United States living without grid power. Iron Sun Cabin Kits can provide power for lighting, small 12V appliances and charging devices, according to LEF.

DC microgrids are more reliable and affordable than AC off-grid systems, according to Living Energy Lights, a project of LEF. AC-based solar kits can cost $10,00–$30,000, while a DC microgrid can cost about $4,000. While AC can generate huge sources of power and transport it without losses over great distances, DC microgrids can be a more sustainable alternative, especially in regions where grid connection is not an option, explained Chenchira Seger, who helped to install the off-grid solar systems for the Diné and Hopi. She lives at Magnolia House, an offshoot of LEF.

LEF installed the systems with the support of the Dineh Water Users, Hopi Tutskwa Permaculture Center and Second Mesa Community Center, and they left eight more systems for them to either install or seed new business selling and maintaining the kits. Dineh Water Users has since received requests from several Diné families to upgrade their systems, either adding battery capacity or compatible refrigeration systems, according to LEF.

Since 2011, a DC microgrid has met the energy needs of a dozen people living at LEF, who use energy from solar panels to power the mill that grinds their grain, hot plates for cooking and a solar-powered circular saw and solar-powered oven invented by the group.

“We believe that this technology can make the centralized, fossil fueled power grid obsolete, and go a long way towards addressing the climate change,” the LEF website states. “All we need is for people to start using it. Native people are much more open to using this technology, even if slight lifestyle changes are necessary.”

“DC living is one of those things that is a lifestyle change,” Seger said. “It’s not something that can be quickly adapted. It takes basic electrical knowledge. Breaking it down so that regular people are able to work with these DC systems has been the biggest challenge.”

“You can run a DC-powered refrigerator, but that requires people to buy a whole new refrigeration system instead of adapting old ones they’re getting donated, free or refurbished,” she said. “People ask if they can run a TV off of [DC]; that’s common for an AC microgrid, but takes up a lot of battery storage.”

Training people to install and maintain solar kits in their own communities “will make all the difference in the long-term success of this program,” according to the LEF’s newsletter. LEF offers training on building, repairing and maintaining the Iron Sun Cabin Kits if they come to the farm.

“We offer to pay for their train tickets, but it’s a long distance,” Seger said. “There’s got to be some other model to try to have education out there, so they can be local. If we can find a way to keep jobs in the reservations, to secure jobs to train young people to become electricians, to have that infrastructure, that would be really helpful.”

Becoming energy sovereign is a goal for many tribes as well as the newly relaunched Indigenized Energy Initiative.

“How do we start living off-grid and be able to have energy sustainability, how can we be more sovereign?” Seger said. “It’s really about experimentation.”

Inequitable energy access has long been a challenge faced by Native American communities. About 10% of the Navajo Nation reservation lacks access to electricity, while 40% doesn’t have access to running water, according to a 2019 article from NPR.

Bringing energy to reservations can be difficult. They are often located in rural areas far from grid access and span over vast distances, and Native communities often lack financial resources to become connected to the electric grid. Many young people move off reservations to find job security and economic opportunity.

Over the years, several programs and nonprofits have aimed to increase energy access on reservations, sometimes through renewable energy. Off-grid solar industry programs have not always worked as intended—solar systems break down and are too expensive to fix, AC systems require lead-acid batteries that sometimes only last a few years and “broken and abandoned solar junk is scattered across the reservation,” according to Living Energy Farm (LEF), an intentional community and environmental education center located in Louisa, Va., founded by Alexis Zeigler and Debbie Piesen.

In February and March 2020, LEF installed 47 DC solar systems they created, called Iron Sun Cabin Kits, in the Diné (Navajo) and Hopi reservations in Tsaille, Ariz., home to the largest population in the United States living without grid power. Iron Sun Cabin Kits can provide power for lighting, small 12V appliances and charging devices, according to LEF.

DC microgrids are more reliable and affordable than AC off-grid systems, according to Living Energy Lights, a project of LEF. AC-based solar kits can cost $10,00–$30,000, while a DC microgrid can cost about $4,000. While AC can generate huge sources of power and transport it without losses over great distances, DC microgrids can be a more sustainable alternative, especially in regions where grid connection is not an option, explained Chenchira Seger, who helped to install the off-grid solar systems for the Diné and Hopi. She lives at Magnolia House, an offshoot of LEF.

LEF installed the systems with the support of the Dineh Water Users, Hopi Tutskwa Permaculture Center and Second Mesa Community Center, and they left eight more systems for them to either install or seed new business selling and maintaining the kits. Dineh Water Users has since received requests from several Diné families to upgrade their systems, either adding battery capacity or compatible refrigeration systems, according to LEF.

Since 2011, a DC microgrid has met the energy needs of a dozen people living at LEF, who use energy from solar panels to power the mill that grinds their grain, hot plates for cooking and a solar-powered circular saw and solar-powered oven invented by the group.

“We believe that this technology can make the centralized, fossil fueled power grid obsolete, and go a long way towards addressing the climate change,” the LEF website states. “All we need is for people to start using it. Native people are much more open to using this technology, even if slight lifestyle changes are necessary.”

“DC living is one of those things that is a lifestyle change,” Seger said. “It’s not something that can be quickly adapted. It takes basic electrical knowledge. Breaking it down so that regular people are able to work with these DC systems has been the biggest challenge.”

“You can run a DC-powered refrigerator, but that requires people to buy a whole new refrigeration system instead of adapting old ones they’re getting donated, free or refurbished,” she said. “People ask if they can run a TV off of [DC]; that’s common for an AC microgrid, but takes up a lot of battery storage.”

Training people to install and maintain solar kits in their own communities “will make all the difference in the long-term success of this program,” according to the LEF’s newsletter. LEF offers training on building, repairing and maintaining the Iron Sun Cabin Kits if they come to the farm.

“We offer to pay for their train tickets, but it’s a long distance,” Seger said. “There’s got to be some other model to try to have education out there, so they can be local. If we can find a way to keep jobs in the reservations, to secure jobs to train young people to become electricians, to have that infrastructure, that would be really helpful.”

Becoming energy sovereign is a goal for many tribes as well as the newly relaunched Indigenized Energy Initiative.

“How do we start living off-grid and be able to have energy sustainability, how can we be more sovereign?” Seger said. “It’s really about experimentation.”

About the Author

Marlena Chertock

Freelance Writer

Marlena Chertock is a former editorial intern at Electrical Contractor magazine who now writes for the magazine as a freelance journalist. Her articles have appeared in The Washington Post, Marketplace, NBC News, News21, WTOP and The Gazette. Contact...

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