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Combatting energy poverty through solar panels in Gallup, New Mexico, USA

On March 24th, 2018, fifteen volunteers from AIC USA founded the new local group “Ladies of Charity of Gallup, New Mexico”. Gallup is in the heart of Native American lands, with a large presence of Navajo, Zuni, Hopi, and other tribes. Over a third of the city’s population has Native American roots. The city is in the Western region of the United States, close to the border of Arizona and New Mexico. A large proportion of Gallup’s households is low-income, with close to 17% of households living below the poverty line. Some of the issues affecting the population are a lack of employment, health care and transportation.

According to Ida Bickerton, current President of the group of volunteers, the group includes about 12 active members today. Their services include feeding and clothing people who are homeless and providing food baskets. They volunteer at a local Baptist Church in Gallup making sandwiches and help with rent assistance for persons moving into apartments. The volunteer group’s financial resources are, however, limited.

Earlier in 2023, a Daughter of Charity, while visiting a sister of the Blessed Sacrament in St. Michaels, Arizona, was given a tour of the Navajo Native American Reservation. While touring, she learned that many of the hogans (traditional Navajo dwellings) were without electricity. In fact, the lack of electricity had even caused the death of one of the residents the previous year! Some of these families will have to wait five to ten years before they are able to have electricity in their hogans. The Sister brought the plight of these families to the attention of the AIC volunteers in Gallup.

To address this situation, the volunteers decided to begin working with a solar panel company (Gallup Solar Company) in Gallup, New Mexico, to help residents with the purchase and installation of solar panels in their hogans. Gallup Solar was started in 2007 by a group of Sisters in the Diocese of Gallup who are interested in sustainable energy sources, “Care for Creation” (protection of the environment, in the words of Pope Francis) and – ecological justice. Their original goal was to provide energy so that people who do not have electricity and were diabetic could have a small refrigerator to keep their insulin at the right temperature. It is also possible to install solar air heating for those who need heat, but this will require air ducts to be installed. and the houses will need to be insulated before installation.

Mr. Bill Bright of Gallup Solar has the equipment – batteries, converters, solar panels, solar air heating, air ducts, etc. – from grants they have received. But much more must be done before the equipment can be installed. Installations costs will be shared by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, an order of religious sisters in the United States founded by St. Katharine Drexel as the “Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and People of Color,” and the AIC volunteers. They have already received $4,500 in contributions for this project!

Andy, one of the beneficiaries, at his home – pictured with Monica Trujillo,
Past President of Ladies of Charity of Gallup, New Mexico

In addition to funding, solar technicians are needed. Gallup Solar Company provides free classes in Gallup every Wednesday for anyone who would like to become a solar technician and earn money to install and maintain solar panels. Two beneficiaries are candidates for this training course, Angela from Oak Springs and Rita from Sawmill. Both are Navajo Native Americans and will be taking the free classes offered. Other students who are currently following the solar technician training course are from Pueblo Pintado. They are mostly seniors who want to learn more about solar energy and possibly become technicians themselves in their village.

Before installation, each hogan must be evaluated to ensure the house is able to hold the solar equipment. If the hogan is not able to hold the solar panel on the roof, the panel will be placed in a secure area surrounding the hogan. Once the solar panels (including converters and batteries) are installed, each hogan will be insulated and equipped with a small refrigerator and LED lighting. The first recipient will be Andy Bodie, an elderly Navajo gentleman who lives alone with no electricity on the reservation in Prewitt, New Mexico and is well known by the Ladies of Charity. His house has been assessed and he will receive the first solar energy project. Due to weather conditions and poor accessibility to Prewitt, however, installation of the solar panels will not begin until the spring of 2024.

Ten other families have been identified as possible recipients of the solar panels. These families live in the nearby reservations in Pine Springs, Oak Springs, and Saint Michaels, Arizona. As the project continues, more homes requiring insulation and methods of heating by solar panels will be considered.

Ida is hopeful that many of the AIC volunteers in Gallup will be able to attend the classes offered by the solar company and become technicians trained in the installation and maintenance of solar panels, thus decreasing the costs of installing the panels. She believes “If you plant a seed, the tree will grow.” Hopefully, this is a project which will bear much fruit.

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