Navajo Nation: As it gets hotter, 13,000 families in this pocket of America live without electricity

Tohatchi, New Mexico

Katherine Benally sat between two open windows in her small home and looked out over a sun-baked field in the Chuska Mountain foothills of the vast Navajo Nation.

As she waited for the cooling cross breeze, the 74-year-old recalled fondly the days when her family grew squash, corn and pumpkin on this property. They sought shade under its trees and had no need for electricity or other modern conveniences.

“The weather,” she said, “it wasn’t that hot.”

But that’s all changed: The Navajo Nation last year declared an extreme heat emergency as temperatures hit well above 110 degrees in parts of the region. And the heat just keeps coming.

These days, Benally barely steps outside her home. What she wants is to go outdoors more often, then return to the cool kiss of air conditioning.

Ashley Killough/CNN

Katherine Benally rarely leaves her Navajo Nation home to avoid the summer heat.

“That would be perfect,” she said, smiling.

But Benally – like 13,000 families in roughly a third of Navajo Nation households – is still off the electrical grid. Like many here, she uses solar panels to power essentials, such as a small refrigerator and a couple of light bulbs. But the power doesn’t last all day.

Now, as global temperatures keep rising, the rush to fully electrify one of the poorest regions in the United States is more urgent than ever.

To that end, several power poles laid flat this month on Benally’s land, waiting to be installed so she can connect to the power grid for the first time. Thanks to a non-profit initiative called Light Up Navajo, 46 utility companies from 16 states are partnering this year with the Navajo Nation’s utility authority to build dozens of miles of power lines under the same kind of mutual aid pacts that help restore power after natural disasters.

It’s no easy task in an area known for its rugged terrain and arid climate. But it’s ever more critical to the health and safety of a community that traces its roots in the American Southwest back at least 800 years.

“It’s crazy that this still happens in America,” said Bryan English, a crew foreman with Trico Electric Cooperative in Arizona who’s working his second year in a row on the project.

Connecting a home a mile from Benally’s, English wiped sweat from his brow:

“I don’t think any part of America shouldn’t have electricity in 2024.”

Business and political factors pose obstacles

Roughly the size of West Virginia, the Navajo Nation long has been rich with energy sources and production. But while private companies tapped those resources in the 20th century to help electrify areas around the Southwest, the Navajo Nation reaped few benefits.

“It’s a fairly unique rural situation,” said Dave Lock with the Grand Canyon State Electric Cooperative Association. “A hundred years ago, when the rural electrification effort came into focus, a lot of rural areas across the country were like Navajo Nation: It wasn’t profitable for the for-profit utilities to go out and bring them power because of the long distances.”

That changed under President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration in the 1930s, when farmers banded together to create rural co-ops to power remote parts of the country, using federal loans under the Rural Electrification Act. But many Native American nations at the time were still trying to assimilate and fell behind in the electrification efforts, according to a 2023 US Energy Department report to Congress.

Ashley Killough/CNN

Linemen work to install power lines to bring electricity to the Navajo Nation.

The non-profit Navajo Tribal Utility Authority started up in 1959 to help rectify the issue, but a complex myriad of political and geographical obstacles have made it more difficult to get the nation fully on the grid. Among the hurdles, the federal government put a 40-year development ban – known as the Bennett Freeze – across roughly 1.5 million acres of Navajo land to settle a dispute between the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Tribe. The ban, lifted in 2009, barred installation of electricity and other key infrastructure.

The slow, steady slog to connect households to the power grid is expensive. Today, it costs the Navajo Nation $40,000 per family, largely due to the remote, desert land. It’s a massive financial challenge in an area where the average annual household income is just over $30,000, less than half the national rate.

Without help from projects like Light Up Navajo, it could cost close to $1 billion to extend electricity to all 13,000 families, tribal utility authorities estimate. That astronomical sum – including hundreds of millions of dollars for transmission lines, electric substations and house wiring – is a huge reason other cooperatives have decided to help, their representatives said.

In 2019, the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority partnered with the American Public Power Association, a non-profit industry lobbying group, to create Light Up Navajo, which so far has connected almost 850 families. But even with help from utilities across the country and groups like the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, another trade group, it could take three more decades to run power to every household.

The partnership relies on a mix of private and federal funding. Workers come out for a 13-week stretch each spring and summer to set up the connections, while the tribal utility authority works year-round to get the homes shovel-ready.

The task is “far from over,” said Deenise Becenti, the tribal utility authority’s government and public affairs manager. But when companies volunteer manpower and services, it makes the overall mission feel within reach.

“If it weren’t for Light Up Navajo,” she said, “some of the families who’ve already received electricity would still be on the waiting list for years to come.”

Using cars to charge phones and feel cool air

Living without connected electricity had been a way of life for so many in the Navajo Nation. But with the climate changing and technology advancing, many families are signing up to get on the Light Up Navajo waiting list.

Without a grid connection, residents use their vehicles to charge cell phones or get a brief taste of air conditioning. One young family in Crystal, New Mexico, with a 2-year-old and a baby on the way picks up fresh produce and meat daily from a store 45 minutes away, then cooks dinner over a campfire before the sun goes down, they said. They don’t have a working refrigerator.

Many families use camp-style coolers to store food, but those need constant supplies of ice, which quickly melts.

Thirty miles south, Arlene Henry, 56, lives on a small compound with her sisters, children and grandchildren. She planted a tree, hoping to land at least a sliver of shade on their property, but insects thwarted its potential.

Ashley Killough/CNN

Arlene Henry doesn’t want to leave her Navajo Nation home, but her family’s lack of a link to the power grid as summer temperatures soar frightens her.

Ashley Killough/CNN

A red tricycle sits in the sun near Arlene Henry’s home.

“We’re looking for shade all the time,” Henry said. Her family sits outside in the afternoons and seeks relief in the shadow of her home, moving seats around the house to hide from the roving sun. “We sometimes bring ice, but it just melts right then and there.”

Solar panels power the family’s refrigerator, two light bulbs and the flashlights they use to get to their outhouse at night. More than anything, Henry worries about her adult son, who relies on supplemental oxygen and has trouble keeping the tank powered full-time, she said.

In 90-degree heat, she recently eyed her 2-year-old granddaughter riding around on a red tricycle. The little girl enjoyed an ice pop. But after a few minutes, Henry urged her to come back to the shade.

“Come this way, baby, come this way,” she said. “It’s too hot over there.”

Henry clutched some framed photos of her parents and grandparents who grew up on this land and passed it down to her and her sisters. But now, the lack of electricity scares her – though she also doesn’t want to leave this place that means so much.

“I thought it was normal,” she said of growing up without electricity. “But now it’s getting to me.”

A single bulb – and a face – light up

So far this summer, Light Up Navajo has connected 125 homes with 38 miles of power lines built and a goal of connecting 25 more homes by the end of July, when the rainy season starts.

William Lee Tom Jr., 56, benefited from one of those new connections this summer. He’s lived the past 15 years without electricity near Window Rock, Arizona, and didn’t want to leave because he can afford this house and it’s close to his family.

Before the power hookup, Tom and his son often slept outside in his truck or in a wooden, tent-like structure when it got too hot. Once, while out on errands, his son had to go to the hospital due to dehydration, Tom said.

“A lot of times, it’s just unbearable,” he said.

Power line workers with Light Up Navajo recently installed poles at Tom’s property, and on June 13, they strung up the final wires to electrify his house. The crew wore long-sleeved work shirts and white hard hats, with cloth covers draping from the back to protect their necks from the scorching sun.

Joel De La Rosa/CNN

William Lee Tom Jr. screws in a lightbulb at his Navajo Nation home.

After a lineman flipped a few switches on a new breaker box, Tom walked inside and turned on his only light bulb – one he’d just bought and installed an hour earlier.

The dark room now had light, but it was the normally reserved mechanic’s face that lit up even more. Surprised it actually worked, Tom let out a triumphant “Alriiiiight!”

He paused to look around the room, joking he could now see its messy contents.

“Wow, that’s neat,” Tom added. “I’ve seen electricity before but not in my own property.”

Now, he looks forward to installing an air conditioning unit.

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