This article was originally published in the May/June 1997 issue of Home Energy Magazine. Some formatting inconsistencies may be evident in older archive content.


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Home Energy Magazine Online May/June 1997

in energy

New Shine on Hopi Homes

Many houses on the rural Hopi Reservation of northeast Arizona rely on propane, wood, and coal for their heating, refrigeration, and cooking. These homes are often lit with gaslights, which can cause fires (televisions and radios run on batteries). Gasoline generators are the most common way to pump water in the arid land, but the generators are expensive to purchase and operate, so many homes do not have running water. A few villages on the reservation have grid-linked electricity, but the grid isn't feasible for many remote dwellings, which can be 50 miles from the nearest power line. Grid hookups cost $20,000 per mile of line, and increase dependence on the electric utility.

Ten years ago, the nonprofit Hopi Foundation decided to provide Hopi Reservation residents with a low-cost, independent source of electricity. They knew that over 70% of the maximum possible sunlight hits the ground in their region. Remote houses in a sunny area make off-grid solar electric systems ideal, so the foundation began providing such systems through the NativeSUN Hopi Solar Electric Project NativeSUN was formed to provide panels, batteries, wiring, education, and financing so that people far from the grid could use electric lights, microwaves, and power tools without relying on gasoline generators.

Today, NativeSUN is directed by Hopi electrician Debby Tewa. She and her staff install systems ranging from small two-panel designs with barely 100 watts of power to $7,000, eight-panel systems that track the sun and provide 1,200 watts. They have installed about 320 solar electric systems and plan to begin offering solar water heating, corn-posting toilets, and other environmentally friendly products. They sell energy-conserving appliances, such as a super-efficient refrigerator, so residents with solar systems can use more of their limited solar electricity for other uses, reducing their need for fossil fuels.

Because the 12,000 members of the Hopi Reservation have very few cash-employment opportunities, most households don't have thousands of dollars to pay for a new system of solar panels and batteries. Thus, NativeSUN has developed a revolving loan program to help homeowners finance the systems. Started with a seed grant of $50,000 from the Arizona Community Foundation and the Hitachi Foundation, the loan program now lends as much as $9,000 per household so the systems can be paid off over five years. The foundation currently finances systems at 12% interest with a 1% processing fee.

Homeowners interested in financing a solar electric system apply just as they would at a bank. But unlike a bank, NativeSUN provides loans to customers with poor credit histories. It asks for a 50% down payment and provides a smaller system.

The NativeSUN terms are attractive compared with a program offered by Arizona Public Service (APS), the statewide investor-owned utility. APS's new off-grid solar program leases out solar systems and backup generators. For a 2kW system, a homeowner pays APS an initial $1,800, plus $450 per month. In return, APS maintains the system. After five years, the homeowner has the option of buying the system at its depreciated price. APS has installed ten systems in the program's first nine months, with no publicity. APS is not planning a low-income program any time soon. According to APS' Herb Hay-den, We can't afford to give away electricity.., or subsidize anything except the startup costs of the program.

Reservation residents have generally been happy with the systems provided by Hopi Solar. Tewa's biggest obstacle has been showing homeowners how to budget the small amount of electricity that is stored in the batteries. Like most people newly introduced to off-the-grid electricity, many residents have tried to run too many appliances. Fortunately, when people run out of electricity, they are can still fall back on other energy sources such as wood, coal, and propane for the necessities of cooking, heating, and refrigeration.

--Steven Bodzin

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