Navajo Nation families connected to electric grid for first time

In a small home located on the LeChee Chapter of the Navajo Nation among the ancient, cross-bedded sandstone, a light shines brightly to break up the night sky. For many in this remote area of northern Arizona, light is a precious commodity, available only to the few fortunate enough to have electricity.

Now, thanks to a partnership between the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority (NTUA) and the Navajo Generating Station (NGS), 50 LeChee area homes have been connected to electrical service.

The effort began in January 2012 when the NTUA, NGS and the LeChee Chapter pledged to work together to jointly fund an effort to bring electricity to some 63 LeChee homes over a three-period. In the first year of the LeChee Electrification Project, workers installed power poles strung lines, wired homes and brought electricity to the first 17 homes. Since then, more than 75 miles of power poles and lines have been constructed and another 33 homes have been connected. All will have electric lights on for the first time by mid-April.

“We understand that families along this route had lost hope because they have been waiting for years,” said Walter W. Haase, NTUA general manager. “With this partnership, our goal is to restore that lost hope as we extend utility service to the area.”

The LeChee Chapter obtained nearly $2.3 million in grants to bring electrical power to the homes. That was matched with $2 million from NGS and $1.1 from NTUA which also provided the manpower to build the project.

“For many of us, having access to electric service is taken for granted,” said Robert Talbot who manages NGS for its operator, Phoenix-based Salt River Project (SRP). “We appreciate the opportunity to work with the NTUA and the LeChee Chapter to bring members of the community without access to electricity a product that will have a lasting and positive impact on their lives.”

Three years ago, NGS Community Liaison Regina Lane received a $200,000 funding request from the LeChee Chapter for a power line right-of-way study. Lane forwarded the request to Barry Drost, SRP Director of Major Projects for Baseload Generation. After discussing the idea with other managers, they thought the amount of the request just wasn’t right. So they decided to recommend making a $2 million contribution for the project instead.

“This $200,000 request meant it’s going to be 10 years or so before those people get electricity,” Drost said. “They really needed more money. And this is an opportunity for NGS to step up and to really show that they care about the community that they’re in and that they want to participate and be good neighbors.”

For Alvin and Margie Tso, the wait was decades in the making. Asked how long he waited for electricity, Mr. Tso said, “I suppose a lifetime since we moved here.”

Margie Tso said it was not easy raising a family and doing all the laundry by hand with a washboard and tub. When she heard that there was a project to bring electricity to their home off U.S. 98 east of NGS, she said she would drive out every day to see how close the poles were.

Down the highway, Laverne Etsitty and her husband Dennis raised five children near where she grew up in LeChee. Like the Tsos, they have always been too far away from a power line for a costly extension.

“For a long time, since when we were little, we always wanted electricity in our home,” Mrs. Etsitty said. “I got my own house now and I wanted it so badly. I probably used up a lot of money on generators.”

Her last generator is being repaired in Phoenix now, she said.

This region of the Navajo Nation is known for its summer heat, with temperatures frequently above 100 degrees. That requires residents without electricity to make regular trips to town to buy ice to keep food cool.

Mrs. Etsitty, who has become expert in knowing which brand of ice stays frozen longest, says she looks forward to the end of that chore and being known in town as “the ice lady.”

“Everyone’s dream is a refrigerator and a new stove,” she said. “I want electric stuff like a microwave and crock pot and a toaster. Usually, I have to put it under the broiler thing to make toast.”

Most of all, she says, she hopes having electricity will make it possible for her children to move back home. Today, they live in Phoenix, Mesa, Farmington and one will graduate from welding school in Chicago in June.

The LeChee Electrification Project will be completed when 13 more homes are connected to electricity by the end of 2015.

NGS, located on the Navajo Indian Reservation near Page, is one of the largest suppliers of reliable and affordable electricity in the Southwest. The plant is managed by SRP and employs nearly 550 people, more than 80 percent of whom are Navajo.

NTUA supplies and extends electricity, natural gas, water, wastewater treatment, renewable energy and telecommunications services to homes and businesses throughout the 27,000-square-mile Navajo Nation and neighboring communities.

SRP is the largest supplier of electricity to the greater-Phoenix metropolitan area, serving more than 985,000 customers.

NTUA supplies and extends electricity, natural gas, water, wastewater treatment, renewable energy and telecommunications services to homes and businesses throughout the 27,000-square-mile Navajo Nation and neighboring communities.

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