Enhancing Power Grid Resilience for Navajo Nation

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A windmill and water storage tanks
Photo: Tom Darrah, Global Water Institute, The Ohio State University

While essential to the daily life and economy of the Navajo reservation, electricity supply and resilience present longstanding challenges for the Navajo people due to factors including investment issues, aging infrastructure, lack of reserve capacity, and protracted times for outage identification and service restoration.

Ohio State faculty have joined a multi-university and multidisciplinary team to initiate new research to develop ways to enhance electric power grid resilience for reservation residents.

The largest Native American reservation in the United States, the Navajo Nation is home to more than 173,000 people in 27,000 square miles in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

“The Navajo reservation has many infrastructure investment challenges, and they have in many ways the least access to energy resources and infrastructure in general,” said Noah Dormady, professor at the John Glenn College of Public Affairs. “But at same time, its geographic area is resource rich in terms of renewable and other forms of energy.”

"It is quite the paradox to see an energy-rich area with such a high degree of energy access challenges," added Dormady.

Noah Dormady and Abdollah Shafieezadeh portraits
(L) Noah Dormady and (R) Abdollah Shafieezadeh

Dormady and Abdollah Shafieezadeh, the Lichtenstein Professor of Civil, Environmental and Geodetic Engineering at Ohio State, and colleagues will model grid capacity expansion while considering resilience and energy justice, especially the impacts of long duration power outages on this and other socially vulnerable populations.

The project, supported by a $900,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Energy Technologies Office, is led by Navajo Technical University and includes The Ohio State University; the Colorado School of Mines; the Dineh Chamber of Commerce in Navajo Nation; and Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, the tribally owned utility provider for the Navajo reservation.

“Electric power outages are more impactful in a location like the Navajo reservation,” said Shafieezadeh. Because of other infrastructure challenges that exist there but not elsewhere, power system disruptions can cascade and adversely impact other essential lifeline services such as potable drinking water, food supply, and access to medical services.

These cascading disruptions can also cause business interruption, according to Dormady.

“Interruptions in power and other dependent infrastructure reverberate through small and mid-sized businesses,” he said, “because that reduces their ability to operate.”

More than 14,000 households do not have access to power in the first place, Dormady said, and many don’t have access to running water.

“They will drive more than 100 miles to riparian areas of the reservation to get water from livestock wells. That water is not potable, and when power is out, residents cannot boil it on their electric stove. Losing electricity can also mean loss of drinking water,” Dormady said. Power losses lead to food insecurity as well.

“The closest grocery is also sometimes 100 miles away,” Shafieezadeh said. “If there’s an outage, food can spoil, and the residents have to drive a long distance to get to a place where they can get food. These types of challenges we don’t normally see in other parts of the country.” 

Navajo Nation welcome sign
Photo: JeanLuc Ichard, stock.adobe.com

“A primary reason these communities continue to face challenges is the lack of comprehensive studies identifying core issues behind the challenges,” Shafieezadeh explained. “This is partly due to lack of reliable data.”

This project aims to enhance resilience and address key investment disincentives through cost-effective renewable technologies.

Dormady and Shafieezadeh will first work with partners on the project to collect data by way of surveys of the businesses and households on the reservation and then analyze the data to quantify how the power system resilience issues impact the community.

“We also have a robust approach for gathering data from both the business and residential communities,” Dormady said. “We have a team of Navajo students from Navajo Technical University who will be going out into the community, and we have access to business contact information through our collaboration with the chamber.”

Next, the researchers will analyze the resilience of the power system and dependent infrastructure considering the natural hazards common on the reservation. A myriad of factors such as high wind, drought and flooding challenge power system resilience, creating a complex multi-hazard risk environment.

“We aim to develop a new understanding of multi-scale reactions to local and system-level failures in the presence of uncertain storm conditions and infrastructure state,” Shafieezadeh said. “Beyond assessing the probability of these failure events and their consequences in terms of loss of services, we will analyze the time it takes for the outage to be resolved. That time element is a core in resilience assessment. We will develop models for resources available at the reservation for addressing these outages when they occur.”

The researchers will combine the community energy needs assessments with the electricity system’s resilience to quantify power system outage risks and determine the best course of action to improve the resilience.

“This project will actively seek and incorporate input from the community and look at the spectrum of solutions that could improve resilience,” Shafieezadeh said. “Considering cost and effectiveness, our ultimate goal is to enhance energy resilience planning for the Navajo Nation.”

-by Joan Wall, John Glenn College of Public Affairs

Categories: ResearchFaculty