PAGE, Ariz. — Most people take electricity in their homes for granted, only missing it during the occasional power outage. But near Lake Powell, some families have been waiting decades to get electricity, and for some that wait is finally over.
When Margie Tso drives a bumpy dirt road to the home where she raised eight kids, a giant power plant is always in the background.
For almost 40 years, day and night, the Navajo Generating Station has sent electricity to cities as far away as Los Angeles but not to the Tsos’ tiny home 3 miles away.
“There’s a phrase going around saying, 'Forgotten people,’” said Tso, who is part of the LeChee Chapter of the Navajo Nation.
She and her family have made do over the years with a butane stove and a refrigerator that also operates on butane or with an electrical generator.
“We were content,” Tso said. “We thought, ‘Well, that’s the way we were brought up.’”
This year, power lines are being connected to 62 remote homes.
Homes can't be wired directly to a high-voltage power plant. It's the tribal utility's responsibility to run those lines to the homes. But some say the tribe never made it a priority in this remote corner of the reservation near Lake Powell.
“I think if it was a priority with the tribe, I think maybe it could have gotten done a little sooner,” said Wilford Lane, manager of the LeChee Chapter of the Navajo Nation.
But times are changing on the Navajo reservation.
“Students need to use computers for their homework,” Lane said.
He helped set up a partnership with the power plant owners. They're even electrifying distinctly non-modern homes, the kinds of places where generations have lived without electricity.
“They have no other way to keep their food cool, except by going into town, buying ice, keeping it in an ice chest and having to repeat that every couple of days," Navajo Generating Station spokesman George Hardeen said.
The project was triggered when the LeChee Chapter of the Navajo Nation asked the power plant for $200,000 to do a study. The plant owners went way above that, kicking in $2 million to wire up 62 homes.
“All we do is turn on a switch, and we have lights,” Tso said, “and so that makes a difference.”
Many Navajos believe they were promised electricity decades ago when the plant was built on tribal land, Hardeen said.
“It’s uncertain whether there really was a commitment,” he said, “but the people believe there was, and the Navajo Generating Station wanted to be a good neighbor.”
Some say the tribe should have driven a harder bargain when the power plant obtained its lease decades ago.
“I think the tribe could have used some knowledgeable people to negotiate for them,” Lane said.
The plant’s owners have negotiated a new lease agreement with the Navajo Nation. If it’s finalized, they’ll pay the tribe $1 billion over 25 years. But even that wouldn’t be enough to cover the cost of electrifying all the homes on the reservation.
Over the past six years, the tribe has wired 2,500 homes, but 16,000 families still can't flip a switch to turn on the lights.
In the current project, the average cost of providing power to each home is more than $30,000. It's a measure of how remote and scattered the homes are on the Navajo reservation.