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FLC professor wins $100,000 prize from U.S. Department of Energy for rural clean energy project
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FLC professor wins $100,000 prize from U.S. Department of Energy for rural clean energy project

A funding surge has lit up the Fort Lewis College Village Aid Project’s Solar Initiative with the announcement of a $100,000 prize from the U.S. Department of Energy. Laurie Williams, professor of Physics & Engineering, is directing the award toward VAP’s partnership with the Navajo Nation Solar Initiative to help individuals and families in the Shonto Chapter of the Navajo Nation gain access to electricity with renewable energy. 

The $100,000 prize is part of phase one of the $15 million Energizing Rural Communities Prize challenge. The competition is aimed at helping individuals and organizations develop partnership plans or innovative financing strategies to help rural or remote communities improve their energy systems and advance clean energy demonstration projects.

image shows group of people smiling in front of solar panelToday, an estimated 32% of Navajo Nation households do not have electricity. The reasons for the lack of electrification are complex and multifaceted. Geographic isolation, tribal-nontribal politics, utility barriers, cost, and a complex regulatory process are all factors contributing to the disproportionate inequity faced on the Navajo Nation.

“From my work with the VAP Solar Initiative, we’ve found that one significant barrier is the lack of comprehensive knowledge within the Chapter related to homes with and without electricity access, or the factors that preclude a home from obtaining electricity when available,” Williams said. 

In partnership with the Shonto Chapter, the NNSI team will develop a comprehensive community home site assessment database, including all home locations, electric transmission lines, electrification status, home readiness for electric service, homesite lease status, and interest in electric service. The database will help NNSI identify homes suitable for off-grid solar photovoltaic systems. 

The Navajo Nation Solar Initiative team brings together Fort Lewis College students and faculty, grant management expertise, and off-grid system subject matter experts to partner with communities on the Navajo Nation to address critical energy needs.

Professor Laurie Williams

Shonto families without homesite leases, and therefore not eligible for utility services with Navajo Tribal Utility Authority, will be assisted by the VAP Solar Initiative. The VAP Solar Initiative is a 501(c) FLC organization that works with undergraduate students to design and install off-grid photovoltaic systems.

The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 is a historic piece of legislation that includes $272.5 million dollars for climate and energy investments specifically for Native American tribes. Despite this momentous piece of federal legislation, most tribes do not have the expertise needed to leverage this funding and develop their clean energy infrastructure without help.

“The Navajo Nation Solar Initiative team brings together Fort Lewis College students and faculty, grant management expertise, and off-grid system subject matter experts to partner with communities on the Navajo Nation to address critical energy needs,” Williams said. “With the Energizing Rural Communities prize, the NNSI team will work with Navajo Nation Chapters in building the capacity to plan, build, own, operate, and maintain off-grid PV systems for homes without electric grid access.”

Williams is one of 67 winners in the first phase of the Energizing Rural Communities Prize challenge and is eligible to compete in phase two to win an additional $200,000. Other awardees include entrepreneurs, university faculty and student groups, community organizations, tribal and local governments, financial institutions, industry professionals, and others with ideas to help organize or finance a clean energy demonstration project in a rural or remote area. 

The prize challenge is an arm of the $1 billion Energy Improvements in Rural or Remote Areas Program, created by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Clean Energy Demonstrations. The ERA Program supports projects that improve the resilience, reliability, safety, availability, and environmental performance of energy systems in rural or remote areas of the U.S. with populations of no more than 10,000 people. 

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