This Engineer Is Bringing Renewable Energy To Indigenous Families In Need
Growing up as a member of the Navajo (Diné) tribe in Arizona, Suzanne Singer, Ph.D., knew many families who got by without electricity. Up to 1 in 3 Navajo families lack consistent power access, making things like storing food and staying cool in the summer heat a challenge. After years of working as a mechanical engineer, Singer returned with a plan to electrify these communities. Native Renewables, the nonprofit she co-founded and directs, retrofits homes on Navajo and Hopi reservations with off-grid solar systems and educates community members on alternative energy installs. Here, Singer shines a light on the energy gap on Native land and shares her hopes for a more renewable future.
What is your mission at Native Renewables? What led you to co-found the organization?
The mission of Native Renewables is to empower Native American families to achieve energy independence and grow their renewable energy capacity.
The Navajo and Hopi have historically been coal communities that have relied on jobs and revenue from coal power plants. This electricity is usually sent to other major cities in the U.S., but it rarely comes back to our own communities.
My co-founder and I have family members who are some of the tens of thousands of people that don't have access to grid-tied electricity. We started the organization out of frustration and a desire for new solutions.
How many people in Navajo communities lack power?
I'm not sure if any person knows exactly what the number is, but it's probably close to 1 in 3 families that don't have access to power—somewhere around the 15,000-family mark.
Not having power leads to a lot of challenges. Children who don't have internet can't go to school if they have to attend remotely, for example. There are also a lot of business owners in these Indigenous communities: artists, artisans, and jewelers who sometimes rely on light at nighttime to be able to do their work.
Why are there such high rates of energy poverty in these communities?
The Navajo Nation is about 27,000 square miles of land situated within Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah. Part of the challenge of getting energy access here is the capital cost of extending the utility grid. I've heard that it can be up to $27,000 to extend one mile. There's probably a lack of energy justice contributing as well. Indigenous communities have historically been overlooked for grid connections.
How do you bring electricity to these homes that are off the power grid?
The southwestern U.S. has some of the best solar resources in the country, so that means solar power is a very obvious solution to move forward with. With solar, you also have the ability to not be connected to the grid and still be able to provide power to the home.
A lot of the work that we do is donation-based. Part of the reason some families don't have energy is that they are low-income and don't have the money to pay for those grid extensions. We've also had cases where we will ask families if they can fund a small piece of the project. This year, we're exploring how to pilot a lending program where families can make monthly payments. I think that's really exciting for the long-term sustainability of the program.
How do you choose which families to work with?
This is probably one of the hardest parts of our job because we know there are a lot of families in need. Sometimes, we'll work with the local community leaders to help us identify families who are more in need than others. Maybe they have small children who need school internet access or they're elders who need light to make them more comfortable.
Is there a particular reaction to an install that will always stick with you?
The most impactful moment is always when they first switch on the light. I'm not always in the field, but when I get to go and see that, it's really awesome. That's the best part of this job.
Where are some of the main challenges of bringing off-grid solar to Native communities?
One of the big challenges is the cost of the infrastructure. And COVID brought some challenges in the supply chain to light. Sometimes we'll have to order equipment months in advance just to have it ready when we think we might need it.
Working within challenging environments is also tough sometimes. We always assume we won't have cellphone service or internet access on installs and that the roads will be really tough. Being so hard to get to is another reason that these families don't have as many resources.
Are there any lessons you've learned in your work that can be applied to scaling up renewable power across the U.S.?
I think we need to use an equity lens to approach the electricity transition. All the newest, greatest renewable technology is really exciting, but is it really fitting that equity lens if you need to have the internet to use it?
The community leaders we work with will often ask us what we're going to do with solar installs once they are no longer working. Are they going to start leaking chemicals? Are the batteries recyclable? Are the solar modules recyclable? All these environmental questions come out of it. This is a new conversation for me, and I'm excited to see the solar industry starting to take more ownership over the whole life cycle of these installs.
Who is one woman in your life who never fails to inspire you or lift you up?
There are a lot of strong women in my life, which is exciting. My grandma and my mom are pretty amazing women. In this line of work, Sandra Begay is a badass. She's the principal member of the technical staff at Sandia National Laboratories. She's been running an energy internship program for years. I'm the product of one of those internships. Two of our other staff members are products of those internships. A lot of her interns have been incredibly successful in their careers. She's amazing.
What advice do you have for other women starting out in the nonprofit space?
I'm still learning, but I think just remember why you started it. And don't let people try to influence you away from what you believe to be your true mission.
If you had one piece of advice for readers, what would it be?
When we first started Native Renewables, my co-founder and I wrote down four key pillars of our company values that we could keep referring back to when we had decisions to make. We did this for personal values too, and one of mine was happiness. For me, trying to maintain happiness in my life is really important. Laughter has a lot to do with that. Friendships have a lot to do with that. So I always say to find what it is that keeps you happy.
Another interesting activity I did recently was I wrote down everything I did in a day, and then looked at each item and thought about if it drained me of my energy or re-energized me. I'd recommend looking at what it is you're doing and choosing things that actually bring you joy when you can.
What's next for you and Native Renewables?
This year, I want to work more on prioritizing my health and managing my stress levels. In terms of Native Renewables, we have a lot of ideas. Our goal is to do 100 installs per year; last year, we were in the 30s so we have a ways to go. I think the challenge is just going to be growing in a manageable way.
How can people support your work?
I would say the easiest thing is to share the fact that there are lots of Native families who don't have access to energy. On our website, there is also an option to donate, so that's a way you can monetarily support Native Renewables. Sometimes we'll accept volunteer help, so if there's something you're truly passionate about, it's possible we could use and need that support. And if anyone has any ideas for our team to help us be better managers of stress, we are very open to that as well!
This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.
Emma Loewe is the Sustainability and Health Director at mindbodygreen and the author of Return to Nature: The New Science of How Natural Landscapes Restore Us. She is also the co-author of The Spirit Almanac: A Modern Guide To Ancient Self Care, which she wrote alongside Lindsay Kellner.
Emma received her B.A. in Environmental Science & Policy with a specialty in environmental communications from Duke University. In addition to penning over 1,000 mbg articles on topics from the water crisis in California to the rise of urban beekeeping, her work has appeared on Grist, Bloomberg News, Bustle, and Forbes. She's spoken about the intersection of self-care and sustainability on podcasts and live events alongside environmental thought leaders like Marci Zaroff, Gay Browne, and Summer Rayne Oakes.