Connecting homes on the Navajo Nation

An interdisciplinary team of four University of Utah professors are the technical, capacity building lead and project managers of an initiative that will provide access to clean energy and broadband for 24 homes in the Comb Ridge-El Capitan area.

Assistant Professors Mingxi Liu, Jianli Chen, and Mostafa Ardakani from the College of Engineering; and Associate Professor Shundana Yusaf from the College of Architecture + Planning are partnering with the Kayenta Chapter (prime recipient), New Sun Road, BoxPower, and Native Renewables to develop the project awarded by the U.S. Department of Energy with $1,185,409 million, and with a cost share of $1,621,892, for a conjunct budget of $2,807,301.

In March, the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Indian Energy Policy and Programs announced $9M of funding to tribal communities to enhance energy security and resilience; and the project, called ‘A Resilient Solar-Based Autonomous Microgrid Solution (MICROGRID-KAYENTA)’ and led by U researchers, was selected as one of the winners.

In April, the U.S. Secretary of Energy, Jennifer M. Granholm, and congressman Tom O’Halleran (AZ01) visited the Kayenta Chapter of the Navajo Nation in Arizona to oversee the project site. During the visit, U researchers and Kayenta Chapter co-hosted a meeting with the delegation and the Navajo Nation President, presenting a project briefing and visiting two homes to be powered through solar energy.

Associate professor Yusaf considers the project a promising experiment in collaboration between scholars in humanities and researchers in engineering. Yusaf came to the project as an architectural designer and historian, committed to decolonizing architectural pedagogy; exploring how to turn art and architecture into instruments of cultural resilience for Diné people as opposed to assimilation into Anglo market-driven architectural imagination.

“This is how we interpret the University of Utah’s commitment to community engagement,” said Yusaf. “The starting point for this project was to place our 4Rs: Respect, Responsibility, Response and Resilience as the guideposts in the reparation work for occupying native land with our homes and institutions. My colleagues in the College of Engineering led me in demonstrating how this can be done through microgrids, broadband, and improving the living conditions of Diné residents.”

Impact

Currently, the community of Comb Ridge-El Capitan has 24 households that never have enjoyed a stable power supply. The University of Utah team designed a hybrid centralized and decentralized microgrid architecture to be built using BoxPower’s MiniBoxes and Solar Containers that integrate solar+battery+backup generator energy systems. The project aims to install 14 3.5-kW MiniBoxes for individual households, two 11-kW Solar Containers for 2-household clusters, and two 18-kW Solar Containers for 3-household clusters.

This microgrid structure has 110 kW solar PV and 350 kWh energy storage capacity. It can generate about 200 MWh of energy annually, benefiting up to 100 chapter members. The total project period is two years. The first year is dedicated to designing and installing the microgrid, and the second year is for testing and verification. The microgrid will be monitored and controlled using a Stellar OS platform and a University of Utah’s control algorithm. Broadband internet access will be enabled through a satellite connection.

“The project will fundamentally change this community’s power generation and usage pattern, from coal-based generation to 100% solar power. From relying on external maintenance to 100% self-sustaining,” said assistant professor Liu. “From a technical perspective, it will create a first of its kind pilot site that academic researchers can leverage to collect power generation and usage data in remote areas, as well as test advanced microgrid control approaches.”

The initiative will provide a 24/7 uninterrupted power supply, requiring minimum maintenance cost and minimum environmental footprint. Because of its hybrid centralized and decentralized design with modular components, the microgrid is scalable to other native communities. The residents will also receive full Wi-Fi coverage, which will enable online education, remote health care, and increased security.

“This is an invaluable opportunity for the community, the university, and our students,” said assistant professor Chen. “Students involved will be able to step into a community and apply what we have learned in class for the benefit of the people. A lesson about the importance of integrating humanity in any academic field.”