Fort Lewis College
takes part in program for first time
members from GRID Alternatives and studentsa from Fort Lewis
College install solar panels on Wednesday, March 7, at the
Ojo Encino Chapter House. (Photo: Jon Austria/The Daily Times)
| A total of 11 students spending spring break installing
a solar project at the Ojo Encino Chapter house as part of a
nationwide program under GRID Alternatives.
| The group spent last week installing a 32-panel, grid-tied
solar unit on the west side of the Ojo Encino Chapter house.
| Ojo Encino is located along the eastern boundary of
the Navajo Nation.
OJO ENCINO Fort Lewis College student Aaron Toledo carefully
handled his utility knife while removing the outer layer of plastic
from a wire before stepping aside for another student to work.
"This sure feels like peeling potatoes," Toledo said
His work was inspected by Berlyn Hubler, tribal program coordinator
for GRID Alternatives, a nonprofit solar installer based in Oakland,
"Is it beautiful? Ah, yeah, Aaron is getting pro now,"
Toledo, an engineering student from the Becenti Chapter, was
among 11 students spending spring break installing a solar project
at the Ojo Encino Chapter house as part of a nationwide program
under GRID Alternatives.
This is the fifth year for GRID Alternatives' Solar Spring Break
program, which provides college students the opportunity to install
solar projects in underserved communities across the country.
The group, which included two faculty members and GRID Alternatives
personnel, arrived at the chapter house on March 4 and spent the
week installing a 32-panel, grid-tied solar unit on the west side
of the chapter house.
Cassandra Valandra, a construction fellow in GRID Alternatives'
SolarCorps Fellowship Program, helped four students test the voltage
of the solar panels as part of the preparation work.
Tsosie helps install solar panels on Wednesday at the Ojo
Encino Chapter house. (Photo: Jon Austria/The Daily Times)
Valandra, a member of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe in South Dakota,
joined SolarCorps to develop skills and to learn about solar energy.
She said her tribe does not have an electric company, so tribal
members pay for services supplied from resources off the reservation.
But she hopes her interest in alternative energy leads to the development
of a service for her tribe.
Gwendolyn Tsosie, an engineering student from the Ganado Chapter
in Arizona, helped with the voltage testing. She said the hands-on
training has furthered her understanding of what she has read in
textbooks and learned in class, but learning about the potential
to bring more solar projects to the Navajo Nation has gotten her
"This is the start of something big," she said adding
she has heard stories about tribal members struggling to have electricity
in their homes.
Valandra, a construction fellow in the SolarCorps Fellowship
Program, connects wires for a solar project on Wednesda at
the Ojo Encino Chapter house. (Photo: Jon Austria/The Daily
Tim Willink, director for tribal programs at GRID Alternatives,
said the students benefit from participation in the program by learning
skills, and they are helping the chapter save money by providing
a renewable energy source.
"Instead of going to Vegas or the Caribbean, they're here
giving back to the community," Willink said.
"We're exposing these students and other folks to a potential
career path in solar. They like working outside and with their hands.
They're learning about this technology, that it's something attainable,"
Reducing the chapter's electric bill was one reason Chapter
Manager Gloria Chiquito contacted Willink after he talked about
solar power at a meeting between the Ojo Encino, Counselor and Torreon
Chiquito said she is interested in seeing how much the chapter
saves after its solar system starts operating.
Hubler, right, of GRID Alternatives, works on the electrical
system for a solar panel project on Wednesday at the Ojo Encino
Chapter house. (Photo: Jon Austria/The Daily Times, Jon Austria/The
Ojo Encino is located along the eastern boundary of the Navajo
Nation. Although 95 percent of homes in the chapter receive electricity
supplied by the Jemez Mountains Electric Cooperative Inc., many
residents struggle to pay their bill.
"I know a lot of our local people are low income. I know
they come to the chapter asking for help, such as when their lights
get disconnected," Chiquito said.
By having a solar project at the chapter house, it can serve
as a teaching tool for residents to understand how solar works and
whether such units can be installed on homes, she said.
This is the first year Fort Lewis College has participated in
the spring break program. The idea started after Becky Clausen,
an associate professor of sociology, and Laurie Williams, a professor
of engineering, learned about the program.
As Williams watched the students, she talked about how the experience
is opening their eyes to solar technology and how accessible it
is, even to remote areas like Ojo Encino.
Lewis College students test solar panels on Wednesday before
installation at the Ojo Encino Chapter house. (Photo: Jon
Austria/The Daily Times)
"They're thinking critically about what solar could mean
to other communities on the reservation and the challenges with
issues of net metering or not net metering and who's your service
provider," Williams said.
Clausen said the students also have talked about the relationship
between solar energy, politics and economics.
"I think having both paired together for this week is going
to make them be able to think about how to make change in the future,"