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DEMEC lights up Navajo Nation

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DEMEC sent crews out to the Navajo Natio to connect a series of homes to the electric grid earlier this year. | PHOTO COURTESY OF DEMEC

SMYRNA The cost to connect a home in the Navajo Nation, an American Indian reservation that includes parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah, is about $40,000.

The work of the Delaware Municipal Electric Corporation (DEMEC) and other companies was able to reduce that down to $8,000 through volunteer time, materials and other donations though.

“I can’t believe in 2022 there are people in the United States that want electricity and have to wait years to get it. It was an unbelievable experience working on the reservation. Something I won’t forget,” said Jeff Wood, a line worker from Smyrna. “I’m glad I was a small part of something big. I am looking forward to going back if I am lucky enough.”

DEMEC participated in the third year of Light Up Navajo, a collaboration between the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority (NTUA) and the American Public Power Association. In the span of six weeks this spring, 138 lineworkers from across the country went to the Navajo Nation with the goal of connecting 300 families to the electric grid.

Since the reservation, which is larger than Delaware, Maryland and New Jersey combined, is considered federal land, extra permits and fees have made it difficult to connect households to electricity. There are roughly 15,000 people in the Navajo Nation without access to electricity, and the average income for a resident is roughly $10,000 a year.

When the DEMEC crew was out in the Navajo Nation this year, they worked alongside NTUA members to drive utility poles and work with the wires to connect the electric distribution system, as well as wiring and connecting the meter that connects directly to homes.

Workers were sometimes out for 12-hour days in desert conditions. Bucket trucks were used in some cases, but other times line workers had to climb the utility poles themselves.

“It took a lot of time to get power to each of the homes we got electricity to. With long days in the 90-degree heat along with sand and rock terrain, it was hard on the vehicles and your body. But it was well worth it knowing someone was going to have light and a cold refrigerator without the use of a generator,” said DEMEC crew leader Greg Shevchuck of Newark.

It would have cost $1 billion and taken 60 years to connect electricity without the assistance, according to the NTUA.

“There is nothing more rewarding and yet humbling than to bring the essential service of electricity to families who do not have it. To see firsthand and share in their excitement and overwhelming joy when the lights go on for the first time in their homes moves the soul beyond words,” DEMEC President and CEO Kimberly Schlichting said. “With the electrification of the nation, we all should be asking, why were they left behind?”

Established in 1978, DEMEC is a joint action agency that represents eight power-producing Delaware towns and cities that serve 99,200 people. Members include Clayton, Dover, Lewes, Middletown, Newark, New Castle, Seaford and Smyrna.

The agency’s peak load is 301 megawatts, supported by solar plants across the state, a Pennsylvanian wind farm, a natural gas facility in Ohio and its own generation station in Smyrna.

DEMEC got involved in Light Up Navajo when Schlichting first heard of the issue while serving on the board of directors for the American Public Power Association. She then worked to develop a mutual aid project pilot, which was then launched in 2019.

In its first year, 233 families were connected to electricity. DEMEC was unable to participate during 2020 and 2021, but during that time another 125 homes were connected.

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