Native Sun News: Hopi woman brings solar power to the people

The following story was written and reported by Katherine Saltzstein, Native Sun News Correspondent. All content © Native Sun News.

Deb Tewa and student Ian Masayesva make solar power upgrades on the Hopi Reservation in Arizona. Photo from Facebook

She brings the power of the sun to the people
By Katherine Saltzstein
Native Sun News Correspondent

HOTEVILLA, Ariz. — Deb Tewa, a member of the Hopi tribe of Arizona, is one of few women who install solar energy systems, called photovoltaic (PV) units.

She has set up more than 300 solar electric systems most on the Hopi and Navajo reservations. She also has placed them on the Zuni reservation, and in Flagstaff, Arizona, California and Ecuador.

“I hope to go wherever the need is and if they want to work with me,” Tewa said in a telephone interview. “My primary focus is working with tribes, but I will work with anyone who’s willing to work with me. In particular I like to work with tribal communities; I’m culturally sensitive. The need is greater there. But I work with other folks as well.”

The solar energy systems convert sunlight into electricity with the help of solar panels. They’re especially useful in rural areas where connecting to the existing electrical supply or “grid” may be too expensive or impossible because an area is too remote. The PV units can be connected to existing grid power if a utility allows it to tie into the grid, she said. Sometimes batteries are necessary to store solar energy.

Tewa, who runs her own business, Tewa Energy Services, offers workshops on how to use solar energy and she educates young people about solar electricity. At one time she had a contract with Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque to advise tribal governments and to help set up PV units on reservations and teach people how to use them.

“I have thirty three years of experience. I want to share my knowledge with others. That’s why I started a company. I’m very passionate and I want to train people,” she said.

She is reluctant to give an exact number for cost differences between solar energy and the more traditional electrical power. It depends on the person’s usage she says. But she will tell you that it’s good for the environment to switch to solar energy.

“With coal, there’s water use to generate electricity. A coal-fired plant is detrimental with emissions and water use. It’s cheaper and better for the environment (to have solar energy).” Tewa has homes in Hotevilla on the Hopi reservation and in Phoenix.

“My office is in my car. That‘s where my computer is. I’m very mobile.”

She is training two students to help her with the business.

Before she sets up solar energy on a home or business she teaches people how to use the system. She needs four hours to explain the terminology, she said.

The cost of her services depends on the location, how many people want to participate and how many hours it will take to do the training.

It is approximately $1,000 per person for 40 hours plus $100 for books and other materials. And the cost for travel, meals and lodging which vary according to the location, she said.

There are two types of solar energy systems for residences, she explained. One is called “grid tied” which is tied into the existing grid power. It is operated without batteries. The other is called stand-alone or “off- grid” where there is no grid power or electrical lines. It includes the use of batteries to store energy. Typically in areas where there is not grid power or electrical lines has a battery bank to store the energy.” When she sets these up, she teaches people how to use them.

In general, solar energy costs less than electricity. But solar energy is not as abundant as grid tied electricity so there is not as much energy to light up the house. People who use solar electricity must be energy-conscious, Tewa said.

“The cost varies. It depends on consumption,” she said and on the season of the year. There is more sunlight in the summer thus more solar power. During the winter with less sun people must be frugal in their energy use.

She has installed solar electric systems in the southwestern United States where sunshine is abundant. But systems have been installed throughout the United States in Wisconsin, Minnesota, New Jersey, South Dakota and Alaska. So it works in areas where there is less sunshine.

Learning how to set up and use solar power is not complicated, Tewa said.

“I have helped elderly people. I set one up for a Hopi neighbor of mine in her nineties. She was elated. She was able to turn on a switch on the wall for the first time. She had been using propane. She was able to understand her system and make it work for her. It’s not too technical. I’m not making engineers out of people.”

Settings up solar electric systems for the elderly who have not had electrical power before is especially gratifying, Tewa added.

“They can flip a switch and a light comes on rather than search for matches to light a lamp.”

Tewa lived with her grandmother in Hotevilla on the Hopi reservation as a young child. They had no electricity. When she was eleven-years-old she moved to Tuba City, Arizona to live with her parents who had electricity. She had been getting along fine without it but she soon realized the convenience of electricity.

She attended Northern Arizona University but dropped out after three years and switched to a trade school, Gila River Center, to become a certified electrician.

“I left Northern Arizona University in 1981 for the first time because I was struggling as a student,” she said. “I returned to Tuba City to live with my parents and took a summer job as a Hopi Tribal summer employee. A representative of the Hopi Job Training and Placement Act was recruiting Hopi people to receive training in electrical or plumbing at the Gila River Career Center in Sacaton, Arizona. I returned to NAU later to complete Applied Indigenous Studies with an emphasis in Environmental Management.”

She returned for a Bachelor of Science degree in 2004.

She learned about solar energy at the Hopi Foundation, a community non-profit which includes a solar energy non-profit called NativeSUN which installs PV units in homes in remote areas.

She is especially proud to work with the American Indian Science and Engineering Society AISES and Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) educating young people about solar energy. And, she offers workshops for women and others who want to learn about it including the Gila River Indian Community Girl Scouts

For more technical information about solar electricity, log onto

Tewa Energy Services is on Facebook. Tewa can be reached at

(Kate Saltzstein can be reached at

Copyright permission Native Sun News

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