Bringing Electricity to an Indian Hogan

Would you spend $60,000 to install solar generating equipment on an Indian hogan?  I, and all those who pay their bills to my local utility, have.  A great success, no?  Then imagine that, days after turning on the lights, the volunteers on the project discover that the dwelling is built of railroad ties, which are impregnated with creosote, a known carcinogen, and so the hut must be condemned.  Would you consider that a well-run program worthy of being continued?  Of course you would  --  to end the program would be mean-spirited.  Besides, someone else is paying the bills.

This tragicomic waste centers on Paula Curtis, a single mother of three living on the Navajo Nation in northern Arizona.  Look at what the journalist emphasizes in enumerating the stark privations the Curtis family suffers through without electricity:

The children liked to stay with their friends or grandparents, where they could watch movies and plug in their video games.

They had a small, battery-powered DVD player, but the batteries often died mid-movie.

The children spent a lot of time reading, and when it was dark, it meant bedtime. On weekends, they stayed up playing board games by the dim light of a kerosene lantern.

That sounds like a description of the way my father grew up -- only without the movies and video games and DVD player.

Paula Curtis cuts hair in Flagstaff, but she cannot live there:

"They try to get me to move to town," she said. "But I can't afford to move to town. And I don't like living close to people. I can't live in an apartment or a trailer court. I can't see my neighbors looking at me."

In other words, she chooses not to live in town lest her neighbors look at her.  Fair enough.  But apparently, in twenty-first-century America, there should be no tradeoffs for the choices people make about where they live.  Or at least some people -- I know many who have cabins in the north country, and no one has come forward to build solar panels for them.  So because Paula chooses not to live where electricity is available, electricity must be brought to her.  Enter a community activist:

Elsa Johnson, a Navajo woman who lives in Scottsdale, is passionate about bringing solar power to the rural Navajo Reservation with her Plateau Solar Project.

Whenever I hear that some politician or community organizer is "passionate," I want to vomit.  The word is always used as a self-evident compliment to close off further discussion.  What need to examine motives or methods or results?  The subject is passionate!  Yay!  So was Charles Manson.  And Son of Sam.  And Pol Pot.  Whenever passion appears, be assured that hokum and demagoguery cannot be far behind.

I have no idea if Elsa Johnson lives in a gated community like a Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton, but Scottsdale is not exactly a downscale town.  If you have a strong stomach, you can listen to Progressive Radio Network interview Ms. Johnson "with hard-hitting questions and a keen understanding of our planet's interconnecting social and economic fabric," but somehow my guess is that those "hard-hitting questions" do not delve into her own lifestyle (I'm guessing because my stomach is not that strong).

Her non-profit, Iina Solutions, launched the project to take advantage of the money available from utilities and the federal government to help Navajo residents power their homes.

"To take advantage of the money available from utilities and the federal government."  And how.  More follows:

She is partially driven by the irony that the Navajo Nation and Hopi Tribe are surrounded by coal-fired power plants that send their electricity to Phoenix, Tucson and other big cities but the people living on the reservations get little benefit beyond jobs at the coal mine and power plants.

Ironic indeed -- ironic that Ryan Randazzo, author of the piece, can write "little benefit beyond jobs at the coal mine and power plants" without a sense of irony.  What would be a non-ironic benefit?  That everyone on the reservation receive free electricity?  Should all Seattleites receive free air transportation because Boeing manufactures jets nearby?  Should everyone in Detroit receive a free auto?  Such are the questions that Ryan Randazzo might contemplate in his quiet moments, might fruitfully explore while writing on a topic like this.

For the Curtis family project, "Iina Solutions tapped into money available from Salt River Project through a settlement with the Grand Canyon Trust environmental group."  SRP is the electric utility I write a check to every month, so this was one of my settlements.  Somehow, ratepayers like me, who made possible Elsa Johnson's folly, go unmentioned in the article.  We're just the evil people to whom the electricity is sent.

The Grand Canyon Trust "awarded Iina Solutions money to put solar on the Curtis home, hoping it would serve as a demonstration project for more homes to use the same style of power building."  Well, it has been a demonstration -- of poor planning, ignorance, squandered resources, you name it.  But Grand Canyon Trust is doubling down on its losing bet with Iina Solutions, having approved them "to install solar-power units on 25 more Navajo homes with money from the power-plant settlement [payments from SRP to Grand Canyon Trust] and from the U.S. Department of Agriculture."  So not just SRP ratepayers, but taxpayers from coast to coast get to participate in this folly.

But before they start, she needs to raise money for labor. Most of the labor for the Curtis home was donated.

"I can't keep asking for that," she said. "Unemployment is over 50 percent up there. We need jobs."

Ponder that last statement: unemployment on the Navajo Nation is 50 percent, yet it's an insult to ask the idle to help bring power to a neighbor's house.

Compared to the waste elsewhere in government, the foolishness of Grand Canyon Trust is peanuts.  But it is emblematic of what community organizations can accomplish possessed only of lofty idealism, smug self-righteousness, ignorance, incompetence, and other people's money.

Henry Percy is the nom de guerre for a technical writer living in Arizona.  He may be reached at saler.50d[at]

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