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Sandra Begay grew up in Gallup, New Mexico, near the Navajo reservation. Her grandmother lived on the reservation and her father and grandfather served on the tribal council. Sandra remembers going to her grandmother’s house when it was first hooked up to the grid. The family got to watch as her grandmother turned on the porch light. That was only twenty years ago. Roughly 18,000 households in the Navajo nation are still without power.
Today Sandra is an engineer which makes her pretty unusual. Only one in every 13,000 engineers in the U.S. are Native American Women. Her job allows her to help bring renewable energy to the reservations and to help young Native American students pursue engineering careers. She is a Principal Member of the Technical Staff at Sandia National Laboratories where she assists Native American tribes with their renewable energy development. She also runs Sandia’s Indian Energy Internship Program for the DOE Office of Indian Energy.
DB: So talk a little bit about the program that you’re involved in.
SB: Sure. The sponsorship for my work at Sandia National Labs is from the Department of Energy’s Office of Indian Energy, and specifically I am given assignments to help tribes across the United States, upon their request to the Federal government. And then I can get an assignment to help them out with a specific energy problem. One of the specific things that I enjoy doing is strategic energy planning. So we’ll take a team of three of us from Sandia and our contractors and we’ll go out to the tribal community and host a three-day strategic energy planning session. So at the end of the day we’ve looked at a vision for ten years in the future all focused in on energy and we wind up on that third day with a two year action plan, and part of that is not only to support the tribes in their efforts but to give them the documentation for the tribe to implement. And then we write a report for the federal government so that they’re ready for what the tribes might be requesting in the two year time frame.
DB: Do you work with tribes all across the nation?
SB: I work with tribes all across the nation but it also includes Alaskan natives out in the state of Alaska. It just depends on the tribe and their readiness to ask for this type of strategic planning assistance.
DB: What’s the state of the grid or electrification for a lot of the tribes?
SB: The tribes are behind all the way dating back to the 1940s when the rural electrification act was incorporated where many rural communities were connected with lines and poles. For whatever reason tribal lands were skipped over, maybe too complex to deal with from a federal level, and so infrastructure was not actually put in place. Some tribes who might have more money to invest are getting ahead of the curve and having modern infrastructure yet those who do not have a lot of gaming revenue have to go by grants or giving some of their own revenue to put in lines and poles and other infrastructure that they need.
DB: So there are still homes out there that aren’t wired yet.
SB: Navajo nation is a tribe that skews the numbers quite a bit when you talk about national populations of American Indians or Alaska Natives. So, I’ve heard numbers from 18,000 households all the way to 30,000 people that do not have electricity yet at this point and this is as of 2018. And so the way to answer those problems is, yes there’s need for lines and poles in certain circumstances but the cost of $30,000 to $35,000 per mile is very expensive and that would be out of that person’s pocket. Most people don’t have that kind of money sitting around. So there may be grant dollars available but my unique piece to this puzzle started about 15 years ago where I helped support the tribal utility on Navajo put in solar energy. So it’s off-grid homes that have energy from solar panels and batteries and many even have a small wind turbine associated with it. (For the full interview please listen to the podcast)
For more information on the Tribal Internship Program click here.
This episode of Clean Power Planet is brought to you in partnership with the American Solar Energy Society. ASES advocates for sustainable living and 100% renewable energy. They bring scientists, policymakers, business people and citizens together to share knowledge and build community.