In a year characterized by extreme weather, avid handwashing, and increasingly remote interactions, access to electricity is more important than ever. But 12 months into the U.S. COVID-19 pandemic, it’s a basic right on which thousands of Navajo Nation members are still waiting.

“What it’s like to be without electricity? I don’t know how to describe it because we never had it before,” said Navajo elder and Black Mesa, Arizona, resident Percy Deal. “It’s always been this way, so we’re used to it. Until last year when this pandemic came in; that’s when we began to realize that these utilities are very important.”

Electricity has long been a contentious issue for Navajo Nation residents. Of the roughly 55,000 Indigenous households located on Navajo lands, which stretch across large parts of Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico, around 15,000 do not have electricity. And yet the reservation is an energy-exporting hotspot, having until recently been home to the Navajo Generating Station, the largest coal-fired power plant in the western U.S, as well as many coal, uranium, oil, and fracking operations.

The Navajo Generating Station, or NGS, was officially decommissioned in 2019, marking one of the first big transitions away from coal in the region. The City of Los Angeles, which has historically gotten its energy from the facility, has been working with the tribe to transform the land into a hub for utility-scale solar, wind, and hydroelectric power. Whether Navajo residents will be able to take advantage of that new renewable energy is another matter. While the tribe’s members have long been able to apply for federal grant money to help them get on the grid, strict eligibility criteria — such as income limits and minimum community population density — made the program inaccessible to many families.

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“It’s an irony that you have a nation with all of these resources and with these resources that are used in the generation of electricity, for that to go towards outside communities and not to be used internally,” said Andrew Curley, an assistant professor at the University of Arizona whose work touches on the relationship between Indigenous communities and federal economies.

That power gap was supposed to change, at least in part, this past year. In 2019, volunteers from 28 utility companies and dozens of municipalities hooked 233 Indigenous homes up with grid access or solar panels as part of a pilot program called “Light Up Navajo.” In spring 2020, the federal government poured $700 million from the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act into the region — funding that was used to restart the Light Up Navajo initiative. But phase II of the program has met with limited success, electrifying only 1,000 homes over that two-year period.

Deenise Becenti, general manager for the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority government and public affairs office, said the Light Up Navajo funding also went toward establishing Wi-Fi hotspots and upgrading residential solar and water systems. The organization doesn’t plan to institute Light Up Navajo III until 2022, leaving around 14,000 residents without power in the middle of the pandemic.

The community’s high COVID-19 numbers have added a new sense of urgency to residents’ longtime calls for more equitable energy access. The pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on tribal members, something many attribute to the lack of access to electricity and running water. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that individuals frequently wash their hands with soap and hot water for at least 20 seconds in order to reduce transmission of the virus. Without electricity, many Navajo Nation residents have to boil water on the stovetop every time they need to wash their hands. And even for homes with small-scale solar panels, families often have to haul wood or water from several miles away to keep up with demand. As a result, people may choose to reuse the same water for handwashing several times before pouring it out.

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“Some of the infrastructure needs of the Navajo Nation have improved, but it has not improved enough to be at a point that we would find satisfactory for any community,” said Curley.

Outside of the Light Up Navajo initiative, many local groups have been working not only to get Navajo households electricity, but to do so using renewable sources. Satellite organizations like Native Renewables and Power Navajo in Arizona and Solar Navajo in New Mexico are working on single-family solar projects to power up unelectrified homes. Larger operations like the commercial-scale Kayenta solar farm also provide clean energy exclusively to Navajo residents, feeding any excess back into the grid.

Regardless of whether their own homes get power, many Navajo Nation residents have a personal stake in the way electricity is generated on their lands. Coal-fired power plants and uranium mining operations are the source of many locals’ public health concerns. Once-pristine waterways like the Colorado River and the Navajo Aquifer have been polluted as a result of projects like the Kayenta coal mine, located near Deal’s home in Black Mesa, Arizona. Radioactive runoff from abandoned mines has led to cancer hotspots in many Native communities.

“It’s like our water has been depleted to provide energy for everyone else,” said Carol Davis, coordinator and director of the Navajo rights advocacy organization Diné C.A.R.E. Her father, who lived in Pinon, Arizona, not far from uranium mines in Black Mesa, died of multiple types of cancer in the 1990s. “We have all of this development that’s taking place on our land that has benefited other people, but not us, and we’re living with a lot of really sick people.”

Overall, Navajo stakeholders agree that a transition to renewable energy will help the community as a whole. But they are adamant that officials focus on meeting locals’ basic power needs at the same time. “What do we need to do to improve this circumstance? I think it’s not about the technologies involved,” Curley said. “It’s about rectifying the federal government’s relationship with Indigenous communities, including investment in basic infrastructure throughout the reservation. You can’t solve this problem just with renewables alone.”

Deal expressed a similar sentiment. What we have now is pretty inadequate,” he said. “COVID has been a wake-up call for us and Navajo leadership. I just hope that the people who used to enjoy our energy will think about the Navajo people. We don’t want to just see it flow off the reservation like coal did. We want to be the first to enjoy these utilities.”

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