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Empowering Tribes with Clean Energy

Arizona is blessed with an abundance of sun and the resulting solar power it can generate if properly harnessed.

Perhaps nowhere is this more true than on the open landscapes of the Hopi Reservation and the Navajo Nation.

Suzanne Singer, a member of the Navajo tribe who grew up in Flagstaff, has a background in mechanical engineering and energy analysis and is uniquely qualified to lead an effort to develop energy independence in tribal communities in Northern Arizona and across the nation.

“Earning a Ph.D. has provided me with the skills to do research, the resiliency to succeed in a long-term challenging commitment, and the ability to manage my projects,” she said. “My engineering background provides the problem-solving experience and baseline knowledge critical to understanding the technical aspects of solar photovoltaics.”

Co-founder of Native Renewables, a non-profit organization started in 2016 to solve energy access challenges for Native families living without electricity, Singer was recently recognized by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) as the winner of the 2019 Entrepreneurship award for the U.S. Clean Energy Education and Empowerment (C3E) Initiative.

Designed to close the gender gap in clean energy careers and to increase participation, leadership and success of women in clean energy fields, awards were presented on Nov. 14 to women in eight additional categories: advocacy, business, education, government, international, law and finance, and research, as well as lifetime achievement.

Singer and the other award recipients were honored as part of the 8th Annual U.S. Clean Energy Education and Empowerment (C3E) Women in Clean Energy Symposium.

She traveled with her mother to College Station, Texas, to receive the award.

“It was an honor to be nominated and awarded,” Singer said. “The conference was empowering, and it was amazing to feel supported by a phenomenal group of accomplished professionals in energy. I was happy to share my experiences as a Diné woman and my unique career path that led to the work I do today.”

There was a financial portion of the award that Singer said will be used to support her work with Native Renewables.

Since 2012, the DOE has spearheaded the U.S. C3E Initiative, in collaboration with the Texas A&M Energy Institute, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Energy Institute and Stanford Energy.

“It is an honor to recognize these accomplished women for their gifts of innovation to the United States,” said Deputy Secretary of Energy Dan Brouillette in a Nov. 13 press release. “There is nothing we cannot accomplish when we have great minds like these women working on our toughest energy and scientific challenges.”

Secretary of Energy Rick Perry also commented on the event: “Congratulations to the winners of the 2019 U.S. C3E awards for the recognition of your dedication and rising leadership in this sector. May your work pave the way for more women to pursue careers in clean energy innovation.”

The Entrepreneurial award recognizes innovative clean energy technologies or business models that have the potential to drive market transformation toward clean energy.

Singer started the non-profit at the end of 2016 with co-founder Wahleah Johns, who is also Navajo and serves as the executive director of Native Renewables.

Before starting Native Renewables, Singer was a staff engineer and post-doc at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and Johns worked with the Black Mesa Water Coalition and Navajo Green Economy Coalition.

The two women met in 2014 when the Navajo Nation had an energy summit in Flagstaff.

“I was having dinner with some of my colleagues, and happened to meet Wahleah Johns,” Singer recalled. “She recognized me from an article, and we realized that we both lived in Oakland, one neighborhood away from each other. For two to three years after meeting, we talked about the lack of electricity in homes within Native communities, and the need for sustainable infrastructure to power 15,000 homes without electricity. The inspiration to create Native Renewables came from these discussions and the desire to tackle energy access issues.”

From its inception, Singer and Johns, working with a small staff and a handful of subcontractors and volunteers, have focused on three main programs.

“The largest one is the Navajo Clean Energy Program, which consists of designing a financing program that makes it affordable for families to make monthly payments, and building an economy where Native people do the installations and maintenance,” Singer said. “We have an off-grid solar photovoltaic (PV) workforce training program to provide the skills needed to sustain a solar energy program.”

A second program, Outreach and Education, focuses on growing the knowledge of families so they are better equipped to keep their off-grid PV system operational for more than 20 years.

“One of our goals is to have people of all ages understand that PV systems have limitations and may not be designed to power everything they want. The better you operate the system as intended, the longer the batteries will last.”

Native Renewables offers one-day workshops, in partnership with local Navajo chapters.

“We participate in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) events as much as we can afford to,” Singer continued. “We have started working with families to help them understand their electrical load [amount of electricity used] and that the size of their system will dictate how much they can use their system.”

Education materials are provided in both English and Navajo.

“We want to build sustainable programs. One way to do that is to grow the technical knowledge of families. Part of the education effort is helping people of all ages understand that photovoltaic (PV) systems have limitations. Not all systems will last 20 years or more if you plug in anything you want to power.”

A third program, called Triage, was started to support families whose systems do not work anymore.

“Currently, we try to understand the issues and offer potential solutions,” said Singer. “The challenge for families can be to replace batteries due to the high cost.”

The average cost to connect a Navajo family to grid-tied power is about $40,000. “Affordability is a challenge to providing energy access to homes in rural regions,” she said. “Off-grid solar PV systems can provide a cheaper option for providing power to Navajo homes; however, the total upfront costs for a PV system can still be too high for families. Our goal is to create financing to offer families alternative affordable options.”

Another big challenge in providing clean energy efficiently to the Navajo Nation is its sheer size.

“It can get costly both with time and expenses to travel throughout a region more than 27,000 square miles [the size of West Virginia],” she said. “Our site visits can take up to four hours of travel time one-way, so our goal is to streamline visits while still providing energy analysis services specific for each family.”

Programs offered by Native Renewables have been well received among tribal communities.

“For families we have worked with and followed, the feedback has been positive,” Singer said. “Some of the benefits of off-grid power are having lights in the event of a blackout, having enough electricity to power a refrigerator, even in winter, and the reduced use of gasoline generators.”

Working closely with tribal governance has been critical in the success of programs.

“We understand there is a need for relationship and trust building in communities,” she said. “So it has been awesome being able to partner with the chapters for our education events and training.”

Singer said the accomplishment she is most proud of is hosting the first off-grid solar PV workforce-training program.

“It is a seven-to-eight-week program that provides hands-on and classroom training for 10 Native participants with the goal of growing an economy and workforce that also provides electricity and support to Native communities. Planning and implementing the program is a lot of work, but is also incredibly rewarding. It has been fun to see the participants learn and get excited.”

Growing up in Flagstaff, Singer still has a lot of family nearby.

“My family is in the Western Agency of Navajo not far from Flagstaff. While I am more familiar with the area my family is from, I eventually want to be able to help all Native communities.” FBN

By Betsey Bruner, FBN

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