'As the original
caretakers of this land
tribes can lead the way'
Wahleah Johns, Diné
(Photo courtesy of Native Renewables)
A Diné woman who knows what it's like to live without electricity
and has fought for solar energy for her people has been selected
to head the U.S. Office
of Indian Energy Programs and Policy. She'll be taking over
a program that the Trump administration nearly brought to its knees
its budget by two-thirds.
Wahleah Johns is co-founder and director of Native
Renewables, a company that brings solar energies to Native American
homes and trains Navajo solar installers. She's also been a community
organizer and advocate for water protection, and economic and environmental
justice. She's chairwoman of the Navajo Green Economy Commission.
Johns grew up on and near the Navajo reservation, where about 15
percent of homes lack piped water and 10 percent lack electricity.
Water and energy became core
issues for her.
In a May New
York Times op-ed Johns wrote, "How is it that the Navajo Nation
borders 80 miles of the Colorado River and doesn't have access to
one drop of water? How can it be that coal and water from Navajo
lands helped create electricity for Los Angeles, Las Vegas and Phoenix,
and yet 15,000 families on the reservation don't have power?
"Our tribal government was formed in 1923 with the express purpose
of completing a business transaction to sign oil lease agreements
with Standard Oil," Johns wrote. "This was the beginning of a system
in which corporations could make billions pillaging our homelands
for uranium, coal, oil and gas deposits, leaving our groundwater
contaminated and our people sickened with uranium radiation exposure,
lung disease, asthma and cancer."
Without power lines, families on the reservation rely on batteries
and gas generators. She said families can pay anywhere from roughly
$150 to $700 a month just on fuels, depending on the season. "And
usually in the winter, it's more."
Johns will be taking over an office that sustained a 64 percent
budget cut. The Office of Indian Energy's 2020 budget was $22 million.
The Trump administration requested only $8 million for its 2021
The Indian Energy website reports "infrastructure development in
Indian Country is limited due to limited funding and financing,
inadequate infrastructure, limited technical capacity and a complicated
legal and regulatory structure governing Indian lands."
- Promote Indian tribal energy development, efficiency and use
- Reduce or stabilize Indian tribal energy costs
- Strengthen Indian tribal energy infrastructure
- Electrify Indian land, housing and businesses.
"I feel honored for my nomination to serve in the Biden-Harris
administration as the Director of Indian Energy at DOE. As the original
caretakers of this land, I believe Tribes can lead the way to solving
our climate crisis and building a regenerative and clean energy
future," Johns said in a Tweet.
To date, Native Renewables has helped install several off-grid solar
PV systems ranging from 750 W to 7 kW capacity, outreached to hundreds
of solar enthusiasts, and is addressing energy access challenges
by providing solar options to Native communities.
Joaqlin Estus, Tlingit, is a national correspondent for Indian
Country Today, and a long-time Alaska journalist.