WINDOW ROCK, Arizona— Citizens Energy Corporation has announced its support of a groundbreaking project to bring electricity to hundreds of Navajo homes.
The Boston-based non-profit made a $55,000 donation to the “Light up the Navajo Nation” project launched by the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority to serve the 15,000 Navajo families living without power in remote areas of the largest reservation in the U.S.
Under the unique initiative, hundreds of linemen from non-profit utilities—in collaboration with the American Public Power Association—travelled across the country to connect Navajo households to the grid for the first time. Among these 138 linemen from 28 utilities were Massachusetts volunteers from the Littleton Electric Light Department, the Paxton Municipal Light Department, the Sterling Municipal Light Department, and the West Boylston Municipal Light Plant.
Michael Kennedy, Director of Business Development at Citizens Energy, presented the check to Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and NTUA General Manager Walter Haase during a meeting at the tribal headquarters in Window Rock. Kennedy received an update on the NTUA program and described how Citizens Energy’s support fit into a long history of the Kennedy family’s advocacy for First Nations, going back to President John F. Kennedy’s administration.
“It was an honor to meet with President Nez. Our organization is committed to alleviating energy poverty wherever it exists, and we are thrilled to be able to contribute to the continued success of the Light Up Navajo program,” said Kennedy, whose grandfather, U.S. Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, held hearings on Native American education in the Navajo Nation. “We are encouraged to see the Navajo Nation’s leadership advocate so strongly for the continued electrification of its people as well as the growth of clean, sustainable energy.”
President Jonathan Nez, elected last year as the youngest-ever president of the Navajo Nation, has committed the tribe to a new era of renewable energy. In his Navajo Sunrise Proclamation—a revolutionary plan to strengthen the Navajo community—President Nez in April pledged his commitment to the development of clean energy, the restoration of land destroyed by the fossil fuel industry, and the electrification of off-grid homes.
Navajo Nation encompasses parts of Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico to form a territory larger than West Virginia. 38% of Navajo residents currently live below the poverty line, and 32% lack electricity. The Nation’s unemployment rate of 48.5% stands at nine-times the current U.S. average. With a population of 356,890, the shift to renewable energy will have a lasting, positive impact.
“We are grateful to Citizens Energy for the Light Up Navajo donation which will help with our challenge to bring reliable lighting, refrigeration, and heating to homes without,” said Navajo Tribal Utility Authority General Manager Walter Haase. “Citizens Energy embraced the concept of Light Up Navajo and the goal to positively change the standard of life here on the Navajo Nation. Our families will witness that other parts of America do care. This generous contribution is from the America I know – people helping people.”
Thus far, the project has connected 233 Navajo homes to the grid. After this initial pilot, the hope is that Light Up Navajo will continue to recur annually—bringing new opportunities for sustainable energy and community resiliency.
Living on the grid has long been the norm in first-world countries and the benefits are easily taken for granted. Electricity provides refrigeration to ensure proper nutrition; light for academic and career work; internet connection; water pumps for clean water; air-conditioning and heat for safe temperature regulation; and the possibility of indoor plumbing.
Navajo Nation citizens living without power were overwhelmed with emotion when their homes were electrified for the first time. Lillie Wilson, who waited 30 years for power, explained that for her whole life she has been keeping her food chilled in a cooler with ice and hoping every day that she wouldn’t open the lid to find her groceries spoiled. She welled up with tears as she voiced her gratitude.
“I went to my house and I turned the switch on and all the lights went on. I was so happy. Thank you, thank you very much,” said Wilson.
Janelle Wheeler, a young mother, expressed that connecting to the grid has had an incredibly positive effect on her family. She, along with her husband and young children, struggled with the unreliable power supplied by a welding machine generator before Light Up Navajo changed their lives.
“It was so much weight lifted off my shoulders and my husband’s shoulders. Just to provide for our kids, it’s a blessing. I just want to thank you guys so much,” said a tearful Wheeler.
Utility workers who travelled to the Navajo Nation were struck by the impact of their efforts on local families. Scott Larsen, one of the five Littleton Electric Light Department crewmembers, spent two weeks bringing electricity to 18 families. Some members of his Littleton crew stayed to connect an additional five homes— for a total of 23 families who turned on their lights for the first time.
“It was a great experience working with the Navajo linemen to get people in the community power for the first time, and to see the joy of the young kids to turn on the lights,” said Larsen. “One young girl described that she had to go so far to catch a bus for school that when she returned it was often already dark and she would have to hang a flashlight from the ceiling to do homework. She doesn’t have to do that anymore.”
Dave Renzetti, a foreman at Paxton Municipal Light Department, was similarly humbled by his time in the Navajo Nation. Dave has dedicated 23 years to public utilities and had never before experienced a project quite like this.
“I couldn’t believe that there are people in the U.S. that have never had power—not people who had it and then lost it, but people who had never had power. I have done mutual aid projects before where we restored power—but this was different. They were calling it ‘mutual aid without the storm,’” said Renzetti.
In a touching sentiment, he highlighted the dedication and empathy that drive these collaborative movements for environmental, social, and economic growth. “I love doing this work, turning the lights on, and seeing the happiness.”
Citizens Energy Corporation (www.citizensenergy.com) is a Boston-based non-profit founded and led by former Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy II. Under Kennedy’s leadership as chairman and president, Citizens Energy has compiled a 40-year history of channeling revenues from successful energy ventures in oil, natural gas, electricity trading, energy efficiency and conservation, transmission, wind power and solar arrays to programs that help the poor.