Bringing Electricity to the Navajo Nation


During the first week of May, Central Wisconsin Electric Cooperative linemen Jarret Brow and Alex Lutz traveled to the Chinle District in Arizona on the Navajo Nation to take part in the Light Up Navajo IV Project to bring electricity to members of the Navajo Nation.

Jarret Brow

For Brow, the fact that some people in America don’t have power helped draw him to volunteering for the project.

“It’s something to go to another country and help them, but in America you’d think everyone should have power if they want it,” Brow said. “So, waiting 30-some years or longer to get it, that’s something that’s unheard of in America. To do it in America kind of means more to me than elsewhere.”

Lutz said he volunteered for the experience.

“And to bring power to people who have never had it. That’s something that you don’t get to see very often, especially to build brand new power lines is very uncommon as well,” Lutz said.

Brow and Lutz were part of a pole-setting crew while working on the project. This included setting poles and helping put wires on the poles.

Alex Lutz

Both said the experience was mostly what they expected.

“Before we even went they tell you you’re going to be hooking up new families, and we definitely got to do that,” Lutz said. “We hooked up three families while we were there. We got to see them get electricity for the first time, and just to see their faces and to see how excited they were was cool.”

Even though the experience was what they expected, Brow said he was surprised by how poor the communities were. Lutz added that he was surprised by how desolate the area was, and how spread out the residents were.

“There was one mother there that we hooked the power to, and she said that her kids can now do school in the wintertime because they get snowed in and can’t go to school,” Brow said. “Now they can Zoom, now that they have electricity. She was really thankful. She took our picture and said she’d hang it up in her house. Her kids were saying thank you. It was a pretty heartfelt experience.”

Lutz said he was surprised at how long the process takes for residents in the area to get their homes hooked up to electricity.

“They have to apply for it first,” Lutz said. “And then they have to get their house wired up. They have to get that inspected. And then they go on a waiting list until it’s their turn.”

Lutz said some residents have been waiting almost their whole life to receive electricity.

“The first guy we got power to, he said he put his application in in 2001,” Lutz said. “That was the same year I was born. That’s what I kind of think about. I’ve done a lot in my life so far, and just to be sitting around waiting for electricity is crazy to me.”

Brow added that for electricity to be brought to a resident’s home, new rights-of-way for the lines need to be created.

“For them to get the rights-of-way you have to go through the government,” Brow said. “It’s a whole process that takes years because if they find one little fossil or anything they think is sacred, then they’ll have to move everything and start over again. Like I said it takes years just to get the right-a-ways.”

How the Co-op Connection Came to Be

Central Wisconsin Electric Cooperative Vice President of Operations Kevin Kurtzweil first learned about the Navajo Nation project through the electrical power distribution program at North Central Technical College, where he serves in an advisory role. Recognizing that the co-op had the ability to make a major impact in the lives of families living without basic necessities here in the United States, Kurtzweil put together a presentation and brought it to the co-op board, which quickly gave him the go-ahead to move forward.

Kurtzweil decided the co-op would send one journeyman lineman and one apprentice. When he put out the call for volunteers, the response was overwhelming.

“Everybody wanted to go,” Kurtzweil said. “We just put names in a hat, and we drew to decide who would be selected. We have a young crew here, but it’s a darn good crew and everyone here is willing to help anyone in need. Overall, we have 24 employees here and everybody was so excited about the project, even though we only sent two people.”

The Navajo Nation reports that the Wisconsin crew worked in the central part of the region in rugged terrain to extend a powerline that spanned over 10 miles that eventually set the foundation to connect more than 12 families. During the week, eight homes were connected and over 2.6 miles of powerline were built.

The co-op paid the airfare for the two-man crew and their base salary, and the Light Up Navajo IV project covered lodging and meals. A small price to pay, Kurtzweil said, to make life better for people in need across the country while building relations closer to home. Central Wisconsin Electric Cooperative serves two of Wisconsin’s eleven Native American tribes—the Stockbridge Munsee Band and the Ho-Chunk Nation.

The effort was so successful, Kurtzweil said, they are already working toward participating again next year with board approval, and he is hopeful that more Wisconsin electric co-ops will send crews as well. He’s planning a presentation for the other cooperatives in September.

“It’s just such a good, good feeling in my heart, knowing that we helped people,” he said.—Julie Lund

Despite having to wait a long time to get electricity, both Brow and Lutz said the residents weren’t angry, and were very grateful when the electricity was hooked up.

“A lot of the homes that didn’t have electricity also didn’t have water,” Lutz said. “For them to get electricity is just huge. They can have a refrigerator. They can have air conditioning, fans, lights, everything that we take for granted.”

Brow added, “The first thing for the internet and a lot of other utilities, they first have to get electricity. Now that they get that, they can get the internet and a bunch of other things. They’re pretty grateful. The whole time you are there they express their gratefulness, every time you talk to an employee or anyone out there, they tell you how grateful they are while you’re there.”

While working on the project, Brow and Lutz said they were helping build a 12-mile line. That 12-mile line will service 13 customers. That gives you an idea of how spread out the residents are.

“We had poles all the way up to some people’s houses, but they don’t string anything until the whole line is done,” Brow said. “So, people, even though they can see the brand-new poles, there is no wire or anything. They set all the poles, then they string, and then they do everything. They have to wait until that whole thing is done before they can get power.”

The workday for Brow and Lutz consisted of meeting with the team at 7 a.m. each morning, and then traveling 90 minutes to the jobsite. They would work until 7 p.m., and then travel the 90 minutes back to their hotel.

Many assume that part of the United States is hot all the time, but Lutz said the temperatures weren’t bad, with most days in the mid-70s.

“Some of the places we were working in was very flat, and the wind kept the temperature down,” Lutz said. “We had a rainstorm move in and it actually got a little chillier. It was different. I for sure thought it was going to be hot when we got there.”

Brow said they were working in an area with higher elevation, about 7,000 feet, which helped keep the temperatures down.

Lutz added that the scenery was different every day.

“We’d be up in the mountains one day and out in the middle of the desert the next,” Lutz said. “It was pretty cool. You’d stop while you’re working and kind of look around. It was pretty cool to see a mountain in the background, seeing as far as you can see.”

Prior to making the trip, Brow and Lutz were informed about some of the different animals they could encounter. They said they were warned about packs of wild dogs, tarantula spiders, rattlesnakes, and lizards. They said they did see a lot of wild dogs, but none of the others, except Lutz saw a little lizard.

Both Brow and Lutz said the experience was very rewarding to help people better their lives by helping bring electricity to them.

“Having a kid of my own, it hits home a little bit harder,” Brow said. “It’s a real neat feeling.”

Lutz added, “It was very rewarding just to see how different of lives they live. You grow up around here and everybody has electricity; you don’t ever hear about anybody not having electricity. And it’s just a totally different lifestyle.” —Bert Lehman, Central Wisconsin Electric Cooperative (CWEC); photos courtesy of CWEC.

About the Navajo Nation and the Light Up Navajo Project

The Navajo Nation is approximately 27,000 square miles, covering Northern Arizona, Northwestern New Mexico, and Southeastern Utah. When the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority (NTUA), a not-for-profit utility that provides electric, water, wastewater, natural gas, solar energy, and communications services to the Navajo Nation, launched the Light Up Navajo project in 2019, 15,000 homes, or 30% of the Navajo households, did not have power.

According to NTUA’s Deenise Becenti, office of government and public affairs, there are still an estimated 13,500 homes, or 67,500 American citizens, living without electricity in the Navajo Nation who are dependent on kerosene lamps, candles, flashlights, ice chests, and wood or coal for cooking and heating.

Becenti says the Light Up Navajo project is a unique partnership between the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority and utility companies throughout the country that have formed an alliance to help extend and expedite access to electricity. “It’s called Light Up Navajo and has also become known as Mutual Aid without a Storm. We have had three Light Up Navajo initiatives so far and more than 600 homes have been connected to the electric grid for the very first time through this alliance,” she said.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the Navajo Nation is the poorest of the 10 largest Native American tribes, with a median home value of $50,900 and a median household income of $30,759, which is lower in the more rural areas.

The American Public Power Association (APPA), which partners with NTUA on the Light Up Navajo project, reports that families without power in the Navajo Nation drive 1–1.5 hours once or twice a week to reach watering points where they can fill 250-gallon plastic tanks with water for cooking, cleaning, and drinking, and they use coolers to keep food cold.

According to APPA, electrifying these areas of the Navajo Nation has been slow due to the high cost of connecting isolated rural households to the grid, the sensitivity of families to utility costs, and the limited availability of government loans.

Becenti says the co-op involvement is a perfect fit. “Co-ops come from a strong and proud history of extending power in rural America. The Light Up Navajo initiative represents homes in rural America that have no electricity—much like the United States during the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s. The Navajo Nation was passed over during the Rural Electrification Act signed by President Roosevelt for whatever reason. Since then, NTUA has worked hard to bring electricity to homes throughout the decades. Progress has been slow with limited resources, and with Light Up Navajo, with the help of visiting utilities, more homes are being lit up each year.”

This year, the Light Up Navajo initiative welcomed four co-ops to the Navajo Nation, including Central Wisconsin Electric Co-op, Delta-Montrose Electric Association (CO), Trico Electric Cooperative, Inc. (AZ), and Wells Rural Electric Co-op (NV).

NTUA reports the typical cost to connect a home is $40,000, but under the Light Up Navajo project, with volunteers from utilities across the nation, that cost drops to under $8,000 per home, expediting the ability to electrify the rural homes. NTUA is now planning for Light Up Navajo V, which will take place in 2024.

“The need is still here, and the invitation remains open to electric utilities that can send crews to help extend electric power. These partnerships are a blessing because it lifts the burden for so many families having to struggle with life without electricity. Families spend countless dollars for gas generators, which give them a limited amount of electricity. However, once electricity is extended to their homes, their lives change dramatically. These partnerships are about people helping people,” Becenti said, adding that there are benefits for the volunteers as well.

“The initiative also offers a training opportunity—visiting lineworkers learn a new system, build new powerlines, and climb poles, while working in challenging conditions,” she said. “The lineworkers also witnessed joy and tears. Every household had a different story to share, including being able to purchase perishable foods that will last more than a day or two, being able to store medicines in their own homes, rather than sharing refrigerated space from nearby family, being able to retire their gasoline generators, and bringing home oxygen machine-dependent family members who lived at another household that had electricity. They all were extremely grateful, often shedding tears of joy sharing their lives will be so much easier. No more day-to-day worries. The kids were happy, too, now that they will be able to have ice-cold popsicles and ice cream in their own homes for the very first time. Some families also prepared frybread for the lineworkers, serving it to them when they took a break from the project. This demonstrated that the family deeply appreciated the hard work of the visiting lineworkers.”

For all who have given of their time, NTUA says Ahéhee’ on behalf of the Navajo people, which means “with deepest gratitude” in Navajo.—Julie Lund