I entered the last few weeks with mixed feelings. Several important back-to-back work trips were on the horizon, and I was sad to have to be away from my family for the better part of four weeks. On the other hand, I was excited about the events themselves: the first Public Power Lineworkers Rodeo and Engineering & Operations Conference since the pandemic started; honoring Raj Rao, longtime CEO of the Indiana Municipal Power Agency, for his long years of service and leadership as he headed into retirement; speaking to JEA’s Board about the challenges and opportunities facing the industry and seeing the great strides Jay Stowe has taken in putting together a stellar executive team; and attending the first week of Light Up Navajo III, the first time outside groups have been part of this event since 2019.
All these events went very well. I am so grateful they were in person, where I had the opportunity to connect or reconnect with so many members and others in the industry. If I’m honest, I don’t always have this feeling of gratitude. Being busy and trying to get through my never-ending “to-do” list can put me on edge and focused on the next “action item.” That is my doing, of course. But as I rounded out this week on the Navajo Nation, witnessing families getting electricity to their homesteads for the first time, I was bowled over with gratitude.
Several years ago, Wally Haase, the CEO of the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority (NTUA), spoke to the APPA Board of Directors about how nearly 14,000 Navajo Nation families wanted electricity but did not have it. He explained that the era of rural electrification back in the 1930s and 1940s had bypassed the Navajo. The expense of getting very rural areas electrified was and is daunting. That is why the federal government created the Rural Utilities Service: to enable the buildout of infrastructure that was simply too expensive per capita to justify paying for through the rates of existing utility customers and instead needed broader taxpayer funding and support.
While NTUA was formed decades ago by the Navajo Nation as a not-for-profit electric utility owned by the community it serves, it has still faced the daunting job of providing electricity to extremely remote areas over rugged terrain without the necessary financial help of the federal government (until recently). NTUA has done an incredible job getting electricity to families and businesses that want it. But the cost of getting to those last 14,000 could not be ignored, especially given that the average annual income of a Navajo Nation resident is approximately $10,000 – less than one-sixth of the per capita gross domestic product of the U.S. and just below the global per capita GDP.
After hearing Wally communicate the need in such clear and stark terms, the idea of Light Up Navajo began to form. Alex Hofmann, now APPA’s vice president of technical and operations services, and Wally talked about bringing in crews of lineworkers from around the country to alleviate some of the labor costs. They discussed this concept as “mutual aid without a storm,” similar to the process whereby utility crews travel to areas devastated by hurricanes or other disasters to help restore power. But, instead of mobilizing after a storm, these crews would be electrifying homes for the first time.
Wally took these initial conversations and ran with the concept. He created a team at NTUA to begin mapping the areas of need in more detail and laying out the engineering design, rights-of-way, and specific numbers of crews that would be needed for each project – whether for one home or a group of homes. This in and of itself is difficult. Each family needed to apply for electric service if they had not already, figuratively “raising their hands” to invite the engineers and crews onto their homesteads to do the work. After a few years of laying this groundwork, Light Up Navajo was piloted in 2019, and over 300 families received electricity for the first time. The stories of those families, as well as the impact this life-changing event had on the lineworkers who attended from across the country, are well documented by NTUA. APPA’s role was to help get the word out to our utility members, work with the media, and encourage Wally and his team to tell the story at our various meetings and in our publications.
A lot of momentum and excitement had been created when I returned to APPA as CEO in early 2020. The team was gearing up for Light Up Navajo II, crews had signed up again in even bigger numbers than the year before, and I was looking forward to being there for the kick-off. Then the COVID-19 pandemic began. The lack of electricity, running water, and other basic utilities for some residents of the Navajo Nation likely contributed to the higher death rates experienced by the Navajo during the pandemic. In response to this tragedy, NTUA was able to take the plans laid for LUN II and use part of significant federal CARES Act funding allocated to the Navajo Nation to electrify another 700 homes throughout 2020 and 2021.
With high hopes for the pandemic to have waned enough to enable outside crews to come in, we began planning for LUN III in mid-2021. Our hopes were realized with the kick-off this past week. Crews from Salt River Project have electrified 14 homesteads already! To describe the beautiful but harsh and desolate landscape of the Navajo Nation, the generosity of spirit of the Navajo people I met, and their focus on home and family, is beyond my capability. In my next blog, I will continue this story, however, with a particular focus on the women I met who are working as electricians, field crew members, field superintendents, engineers, and communications professionals.
For now, I would like to particularly thank Navajo Nation President Nez, Wally Haase, Shannon Burnette, Srinivasa “Veni” Venigalla, Alysa Landry, Teri Talker, the entire NTUA staff, the SRP crews and leadership, and the remaining crews making their way across the country for the remaining weeks of this incredible project. And last, but certainly not least, “ah’ee’he” to Deenise Becenti of NTUA, my guide and ambassador to the Navajo Nation this week. We laughed and cried and toured and (she) drove, and I learned so much. I am very grateful.
(Images: Alysa Landry)