Crownpoint Chapter goes solar

By Noel Lyn Smith
Navajo Times

CROWNPOINT, June 3, 2011

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(Times photo - Noel Lyn Smith)

TOP: Crownpoint Chapter Vice President Rita Capitan, center, stands with community members to cut the ribbon May 22 for the new solar tracker at the Crownpoint Chapter House.

BOTTOM: New Energy Economy Executive Director Mariel Nanasi, center, turns on the meter for the new solar tracker May 22 at the Crownpoint Chapter House.

Standing behind the chapter house is a newly installed solar power panel that is providing electricity to the building while demonstrating the chapter's commitment to alternative energy for its residents.

"It's a new day for the chapter house and a new day for the community," said Chapter Vice President Rita Capitan, a longtime proponent of renewable energy on the Navajo Nation.

The photovoltaic system serving the chapter house has 16 panels mounted on a tracker that follows the daily path of the sun.

The trackers are always perpendicular to the sun and are 40 percent more efficient in collecting energy than panels installed on rooftops, said Taylor Selby, a photovoltaic systems consultant with Positive Energy, a solar system installer based in Santa Fe.

There are plans to install a second unit with 8 panels on the north side of the chapter.

Positive Energy partnered with New Energy Economy, a nonprofit advocacy group based in Santa Fe, to donate the system to the chapter house. Funding for the $60,000 project came from grants and donations obtained by New Energy Economy.

This is the first time both companies have completed this type of project on the Navajo Nation.

The units will produce about 1,164 kilowatt-hours of energy each month to supply the chapter house as well as power two smaller buildings that share the property.

Any excess energy would flow into the utility grid and would be used by homes surrounding the chapter house.

Continental Divide Electric Cooperative, which up to now has provided electricity to the chapter house, would credit the chapter house for excess energy it produces and use it to offset the cost of conventional electricity the chapter takes from the grid when its solar generators are inactive, like at night, said Mariel Nanasi, New Energy Economy executive director.

The chapter could see an annual savings of $2,500-$3,000 in electricity bills, Selby said.

"Energy is getting more expensive," Selby said. "This helps them to be more self-sufficient and more sustainable."

The cost saving was but one appeal of the project, Capitan said. It also provides an opportunity to teach residents about solar energy.

"We have to find ways to provide for people and at the same time provide a safe environment," she said.

Capitan also sees potential in solar systems bringing energy to families who are having trouble getting the necessary right-of-way permission from surrounding landholders to extend utility lines to their home sites.

The problem is a common one, particularly in the Checkerboard, but also elsewhere in the reservation where residents are feeling encroached upon by new homes.

Marilyn and Harvey Saunders said they tried to get utility services to their mobile home in Tohatchi, N.M., but some neighbors refused to give permission for the lines to cross their land.

"Everyone else around us has power and water and the luxury of those," Marilyn said. "This is something that I'm interested in because maybe these won't be no issues with the red tape involved."

Going solar just might work for the Saunders.

"It's free, it's there everyday," Marilyn said.

Until the Saunders figure out what to do, they will continue to use kerosene lamps to provide light.

During the May 22 dedication at the Crownpoint Chapter House, Nanasi noted that for years community members in the uranium-rich area have been fighting pressure to develop new mines, due to past environmental and health problems.

"This was going to be the epicenter of uranium but now maybe it can be the epicenter of solar," Nanasi said.

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