The Navajo Solar Lights Project is a partnership of The Rotary eClub of the State of Jefferson and the Rotary Daybreak Club of Durango to bring light to the Navajo Nation.  

 About the Navajo Solar Lights Project

Most people in the United States take electricity for granted. Only if a powerful storm hits and it is taken away do we get an understanding of what it is like to depend entirely on the sun for our light.

There is, however, a significant population in the heart of the United States, (and only a 3-and-a-half-hour drive from the comfort of Albuquerque, NM) that live their lives with only the sun to light the way. That is the Navajo Nation.

The reservation, bigger than the state of West Virginia, sprawls across Arizona, Utah, and New Mexico. It’s a harsh, beautiful land marked by extremes of temperature, sun, wind, and dryness. 

Many Navajo — Diné in their own language — have lived in these rural areas for generations, as the land is passed from grandmother to granddaughter.

Although they are blessed with big skies and desert vistas, these remote locations are often far from services and paved roads. 

According to a 2016 assessment, about 16,000 Navajo homes don’t have access to electricity. Nearly a third have no running water, and more than half lack kitchen and toilet facilities. 

Many Navajo are caught in isolated pockets of land, which are called The Checkerboard.  Electric lines traverse the land on the horizon, and many hogans are wired and ready for electrical power, but with all of the permissions and work required by the utility, it would cost from $30,000-$80,000 to connect to the power. 

Due to the remote nature of many homes, children often travel by school bus for multiple hours every day. Before having light in their home, all homework had to be completed on the bus, or by candlelight or kerosene lantern.

The Navajo Solar Lighting project is an effort that bring solar lights to at-risk populations on the reservation, including elders over 70 years old and disabled tribal members. Begun by the Rotary Daybreak Club of Durango, CO under the leadership of Joe Williams, The Rotary eClub of the State of Jefferson has, for the past 5 years, provided financial as hands-on support to this project.

A solar light is a simple thing: just a small panel the size of a baking sheet, which mounts onto a roof with a pole. A wire runs from the panel into the house, where up to three rechargeable lights hang from hooks on the ceiling. To turn on the lights, Domingo simply has to touch a button.

To use the light as a flashlight for going outside at night, a recipient simply unhooks it. A fully charged lamp offers dim light for 75 hours or bright light for 7½ before needing to be recharged. They’ll also be able to use the flashlights to go the outhouse at night, a comforting prospect considering the bears and mountain lions that live nearby. 

“To see a house go from kerosene to solar … it’s life-changing. No longer do they have a proclivity for upper respiratory infections because of the soot.”

Joe Williams
Rotarian

It seems a simple thing. The whole setup consists of just one, two, or three hanging lights and a cell phone charger, with a small solar panel to power it. A solar light kit costs a little more than $300 each.

The impact this has on the people living in the Navajo Nation is huge. Our recipients report better health, improved grades, improved finances and generally happier lives.

Elderly recipients report that they fall less when there is light to see where they are going at night. Before receiving the lights, many recipients relied on kerosene lanterns or candles, significantly reducing air quality in the home.

The beneficiaries are largely elders, the disabled, and other at-risk individuals and families.

The lights are a real plus for them. They use them for basic necessities. They can stay up longer, play cards, read books. Their grandkids can do their homework. The lights provide more time in the evenings for elders to practice and pass on long-held traditions, such as weaving, to their families. 

One mother in Sanostee explained that she normally sent her daughter to her grandparents to complete her homework since they had power. She is happy that she will see her daughter more and be able to supervise the homework.

A Note from Joe Williams:

Greetings to our friends at Rotary E club of the state of Jefferson, Thank you again for your continued support.

We have surpassed installation of solar lights in 220 homes and with $89,000 raised through your efforts, our work continues.

From a humble beginning in 2012, our credo “people are served, lives are brightened” now means something.

Our little band of “hands on” volunteers has shown 1.2 million of our fellow Rotarians that a partnership of terra and ether clubs can effectively bring positive change to those in need.