SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — More than 1,000 Navajos who live without electricity in their homes soon could get power for the first time as the tribal utility buys a system of rural Utah substations and electrical lines under the terms of a decades-old deal with a power company.
Across the 27,000 square-mile Navajo Nation, an estimated 15,000 people live off the grid of a utility considered among the most basic for most Americans.
One of them is 59-year-old Annie Hamm. She recently had a knee replacement, but she can't use the physical therapy machines from her doctors because they need electricity. She uses coolers to store food and drives to a gas station daily to buy ice to keep it from spoiling in the summer heat. At night she and her husband use flashlights to see.
Like many without electricity, she gets some power from a solar panel, but says it's unreliable. Some others use gas generators, but for many, being without home electricity also means no running water.
Hamm is among about 1,200 people who the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority plans to connect to the grid after they take ownership of the system of substations located 350 miles south of Salt Lake City early next year.
"It'll be nice. Thank God, I can get my big refrigerator, freezers in, all that stuff. Get my light going," she said.
The utility authority is buying a system that serves nearly 2,000 square miles on the Utah portion of the reservation, which also extends into Arizona and New Mexico.
It originally was built by Salt Lake City-based Rocky Mountain Power to service an oil field and has since grown to include more than 1,000 customers, said NTUA spokeswoman Deenise Becenti. But hundreds of homes in the area were never connected, in part because running power to remote homes on the reservation is expensive — each costs about $40,000, said Walter Haase, general manager of the tribal utility authority.
He's made it a priority to get new homes connected, and the utility has connected some 700 homes annually, but it's been tough to keep up as new people move back to the reservation.
Buying the Rocky Mountain Power system will give the nonprofit tribal utility a hub to make new connections. It'll also allow them tap into a tribal trust that benefits Navajos in Utah to help cover the connection costs, which also includes about $1,500 homeowners typically must pay to run electrical wire to their homes.
Becenti said 25 families in the area already have been connected in a show of good faith, though it could take several more years to finish connecting everyone.
The roots of the deal approved by Utah regulators in June date back nearly 60 years, when the tribe's new utility agreed to let Rocky Mountain build through tribal land under the condition they could someday buy back the right-of-way and equipment.
Talks over a buyout began in 2008, shortly before the agreement was going to expire. The tribal utility secured a $10 million rural electricity loan to pay for the system.
The existing Rocky Mountain customers in the area, including both residents and the oil field, will be transferred to the tribal utility company.