Photos and interviews by Julio Guerrero, graphic and digital designer, American Public Power Association, and Peter Spencer, media specialist, Navajo Tribal Utility Authority
For the third year, utility crews from across the country traveled to the Navajo Nation as part of a dedicated effort to electrify homes in the massive, remote area, which encompasses portions of Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico.
Twenty-six utilities, including 19 public power entities, sent crews throughout the 12-week period from April to July to participate in Light Up Navajo IV.
All told, this year, the volunteer crews, working side by side with crews from the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, constructed more than 50 miles of new power lines and connected 159 homes to electricity for the first time. Since the initiative kicked off in 2019, more than 660 families have had their homes connected to NTUA’s power lines, and crews have built nearly 170 miles of new lines.
These efforts have helped to accelerate NTUA’s timeline for bringing electricity to homes across the Navajo Nation — which includes the majority of households still without electricity in the U.S. There are still more than 13,000 Navajo families without electricity, and the estimated time to electrify all homes that wish to be connected is still counted in decades.
Here is a snapshot of the experiences from a few of the volunteers from this year’s effort.
“I was shocked in how many people still don’t have electricity. It’s something that people take for granted every day, and people are out here living without it and still getting by. It’s amazing to me that they have gone this long without having it.” — Steven DeLeo, lineworker, Delaware Municipal Electric Corp., Delaware
“Last year, we had a crew that came out, and when they came back, the stories they told about being able to bring people to power and help serve the community, it sounded like a really awesome opportunity. Talking with the guys who came last year, they kind of gave us a bit of an idea of what to expect, but it didn’t even come close to what I actually saw. The scenery here is amazing. I never knew that people in 2023 didn’t have power. To be able to come out here and help with that, it’s really humbling. The people here are very friendly. It’s humbling to be able to bring modern amenities to people that have not been served … well, ever. It’s awesome.” — Dustin Fite, technician, Westerville Electric Division, Ohio
“We hooked up some people who said they had been without power for eight years. They have six children in the house. When we were done hooking them up, they all came out and gave us hugs and told us how grateful they were to have power. It’s just an awesome experience.” — Bobby Lewis, lineman, Greenville Utilities Commission, North Carolina
“When we think of Utah, it’s our home state, we a lot of times don’t think about people not having power here. … We were pretty excited to come down and help. It’s a very neat and humbling experience. … Just seeing how people live down here … it’s very different. I’m originally from southern Utah, so I’m used to the sand, but it’s different from where we’re working up in northern Utah. There are different ways to go about a project … seeing how these guys down here do their work, it’s a little bit different from what we do, but the end result’s the same. It is good work, it’s fun work … it’s a good time.” — Jake Akins, lineworker, Spanish Fork City Power and Light, Utah
“If we can just change a little portion of their life to energize and let them have power … allow them to heat their homes without having to haul wood, that’s huge. The Navajo people are a very appreciative people — always humbled that we come all the way from Oklahoma to come and help them, take a week from our lives and our families.” — Brent Scott, power line maintenance superintendent, Grand River Dam Authority, Oklahoma
“Most of these people are my relatives. [By participating in this project,] you get to know people from different areas — and different values and different cultures. Especially if you are coming from the East, the atmosphere is a whole lot different. You’re definitely going to have an experience. Hopefully, we’ll show you how we try to exceed our customers’ expectations to build that power line.” — Bruce Todecheene, line maintainer journeyman, Navajo Tribal Utility Authority
“I volunteered to come to the LUN project because I wanted to be of service. Since I’ve been here, I’ve been shocked from the terrain, the difficulty of the surrounding area, the remoteness — imagining how difficult it must be to live here without electricity. This is different than the situation I was born into, having electricity. Coming out here and seeing the day-to-day struggles, the distance from the road to travel to the main road. Every house has an outhouse. I envision my wife and my daughter trying to make it out here instead of what we have back home. It’s an emotional experience to turn the meter on for the first time, to see the customer smile. It has been very rewarding for me. … It’s like being on a storm after a hurricane; these folks are extremely happy that we’re here. They are right there with us, smiling. I’ve never been out in this remoteness. It’s a good experience; it’s camaraderie, team building. It’s an opportunity to grow, to learn and see another culture. I’d recommend anybody to come out here and experience this and lend a hand, be of service. Some of the necessities that we enjoy and take for granted, I won’t take for granted anymore.” — Landry Bertsch, distribution electrician crew leader, Austin Energy, Texas
“I like to help people. The job that us linemen do … we feel inside ourselves that we like to help people; that’s what we do. After a storm, it’s totally different. Because you’re helping a town that’s already had power, and they know you’re coming. [Here], we show up, and it’s overwhelming to them to see us when we pull up with a line of trucks. It’s a very good feeling, it’s like Christmas morning.” — Ryan Hardee, underground electric distribution supervisor, Greenville Utilities Commission, North Carolina
“I’ve been in the trade for 30 years. I’ve done a lot of things, but this is the best part of it — bringing people power who’ve never had power before. It’s a great feeling. It’s the highlight of my career. I’ll be retiring soon, and I’m glad that I’ve done something that I feel is worthwhile for another person.” — Dennis Ehrenberger, senior electric line technician, Roseville Electric, California
“The biggest thing I’m going to take home is: Don’t take anything for granted. When we wake up in the morning and flip a light switch, you just automatically assume it’s going to come on. After working out here and seeing people living miles and miles off the main road that have never had electric, and we’re able to hook them up … and the first time they flip a switch on, and see the smile on their face. If you have the opportunity to come out here, you should absolutely jump on it. It’s a once in a lifetime experience to really showcase your skill set and help others out.” — J.J. Savage, lineworker, Westerville Electric Division, Ohio