06: Decarbonizing the Diné; 2023 Wilkes Student Innovation Prize Winner Series

In continuing our conversations with the winners of the 2023 Wilkes Student Innovation Prize, we spoke with Samantha Eddy and Xiang Huo, whose proposal: “Decarbonize the Diné: A Prefabricated Solar-Driven Communal Solution with Passive Survivability,” won second prize.  It aims to turn Dennehotso, a Navajo chapter in Arizona, into a pilot project for building a self-sustained and eco-friendly living prototype for the Diné residents who live there.  Their proposed project would be a blueprint for improving the well-being of the Diné community through a holistic system of infrastructure and cultural solutions that would have net-zero carbon emissions. 

Listen to the Interview


Ross 1:10
Samantha Eddy and Xiang Huo, welcome. Thanks so much for joining me.

Samantha 1:13
It’s awesome to be here.

Ross 1:15
So the last time we had a chance to speak was earlier this year in May at the Wilkes Climate Summit. I just wanted to ask you, like, what are you both up to right now? Maybe should we start with you, Samantha?

Photo courtesy of Samantha Eddy

Samantha 1:27
Yeah, I can go first. Since graduating, I actually moved out to Phoenix, Arizona, and I moved out here specifically to work with an indigenous owned and woman owned architecture firm, and that’s Tawaw Architecture Collective. And I really came out of just to continue with my architecture degree and wanting to work with my people and other indigenous nations surrounding Phoenix, Arizona, and just wanting to learn from the principal herself, her name is Wanda Dalla Costa. She is really kind of really leading Tawaw and wanting to learn from her and more about what indigenous architecture and what it can become.

Ross 2:15
So very cool. And how about you, Xiang?

Xiang 2:19
Okay. Thank you for the introduction, Ross, it is nice to talk to you again. So I’m currently doing my Ph.D. study at the University of Utah and my topic is accelerating the adoption of renewables into the power grid. So I’m researching on new optimization control methods to integrate both solar power and battery storage systems into the distribution networks. So possibly we’ll like decarbonize the whole power network through these research results.

Ross 2:59
Excellent. So you’re still here at the U? You’re in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering still?

Xiang 3:07
Yeah. Yes.

Ross 3:09
Awesome. Okay. Well, so as I mentioned in the intro, I just wanted to go back and revisit or ask you to kind of revisit the Innovation Prize submission that you won second place in earlier this year and if you could just kind of share like a little bit of how you both kind of came together to come up with that proposal and sort of what was the background? How did you come up with it?

Samantha 3:40
Yeah, I’ll kind of explain my side. So basically, we entered a competition before this and we had kind of a general idea, but when we saw this competition, it was a little bit more honed down on to what the Wilkes Climate Summit was wanting. We had a broad topic, but then we kind of sectioned it down with this competition. And yeah, so with my architecture background and my cultural background, that’s kind of how I came into this. Xiang is the one who actually found this competition. So yeah, go ahead and explain yourself.

Samantha Eddy and Xiang Huo presenting their work at the 2023 Wilkes Climate Summit.

Xiang 4:27
Thank you Samantha. I want to add something, actually. So as I mentioned, we have been collaborating, you know, electrifying the indigenous communities and building modern homes for them. When I saw this competition, I just thought like, I have the power background to provide an electricity solution, and Samantha has experience in architecture. So we thought we could power the whole community by designing like a new architecture, new homes for them, and without relying on the traditional coal fuel, you know, fuel solutions. So we’ll build a carbon grid solution for them. And yeah, that’s how we came up with this idea.

Ross 5:31
I see. I guess I want to just to pivot, so Samantha, I guess, with your background and connection with the Dine community, I mean, what did it kind of mean to you to kind of develop this pilot project for this specific community?

Samantha 5:52
Yeah. Over the summer before this project, I worked with NREL, the National Renewable Energy Lab, and we were kind of talking about prefabricated homes. While at NREL we talked about “Can this happen on the Navajo Nation?”, because currently in the Navajo Nation there’s a lot of manufactured homes. There’s nothing really prefabricated, and manufactured homes don’t last as long as prefabricated homes can. And so, yeah, so that’s kind of what I did with NREL and so just wanting to expand on this project with Xiang and how we can electrify a community. So I can bring the homes, you know, the designs of prefabricated homes and how do we get power to these homes? But back to what you said, what does it mean to me? It means a lot, you know, being able to do this research. And me just like wanting to continue this kind of research because my community and my people, you know, we need this kind of research happening because when I got to NREL, no one knew what I was trying to come in with and no one knew what I was talking about. You know, they just didn’t have that framework in their mind. So when I brought that in and when I left my time at NREL, all of my mentors were like, “Wow, you know, you put this idea in our head. And so I’m going to try to advocate more, you know, to have more projects or just more research within these reservations that we have in in North America.” So yeah, I thought that was really cool. And yeah, it’s super cool.

Ross 7:42
Yeah. Well, I guess the decision to kind of focus the pilot on Dennehotso, the community there in northern Arizona, where did that kind of come from? I mean, did you have some connection or had you visited that place? Why was that that your decision?

Samantha 8:00
Yeah. So kind of what we talked about earlier, how we’ve been to competitions before, we worked with an organization called the Nááts’íilid Initiative and that’s kind of their, I would say… not headquarters but for lack of a better word, but that’s kind of where they’re based is Dennehotso. They work within the three chapters, Dennehotso, Chilchinbeto and Kayenta. And so, we chose Dennehotso because we’ve interacted with the community there and people who live there. So that’s kind of our reason for Dennehotso.

Dennehotso, Arizona, is located a few miles south of the iconic Monument Valley.

Xiang 8:41
So, before this project, actually our professors at the University of Utah, we collaborated together and we went to like Navajo Nation, other places, to do some local interviews with the locals. So actually, we found so many challenges there, how they live without power and food and I mean Samantha provided many understandings of what the community really needs. Like, my part, for example, providing the electricity; the solar power, but like what exactly do they need? They need agriculture, they need food, they need water solutions, and they need homes. Prefabricated homes, with this new modern structure and based on these, you know, trips and the knowledge background Samantha provided to help with this project.

Ross 10:06
I see. Well, it’s been about six months or so since you submitted this proposal at least for the Wilkes Center Prize. I’m just wondering if since then, if there’s been any sort of developments or, you know, I guess what kind of reactions have you gotten from folks to the idea?

Samantha 10:30
I mean, Xiang you’re still working with the Nááts’íilid. So, yeah, what’s been happening with that because part of what he proposed is kind of what’s happening right now, in a different part of Navajo. But they’re working on some of what we proposed. What’s happening with that Xiang?

Xiang 10:50
Yes. So, we are currently expanding this project, so we work on the other parts in Navajo Nation and we got funding from the Department of Energy. Our idea right now we are trying to find a way to implement it. For my part, the solar part, we did expand this project to rural communities around Utah, not just the indigenous communities, but all of those widely dispersed and these separated communities. We tried to build the macro grid with solar power, hydrogen power, and provide electricity for them. This project we are finding future opportunities to implement at this point.

Ross 11:53
I see. So, so part of the idea is potentially expanding the pilot beyond the original community across the larger Navajo Nation? or perhaps beyond? Is that kind of the idea in in the southwest area?

Samantha 12:17
Yeah, I think that’s what he was saying. So, because what he’s working on is happening in Kayenta, which is maybe about a 40-minute drive away from Dennehotso. Yeah, I think what he’s saying is it’s happening within Navajo, but I think they’re also reaching out to like rural communities, non-Indigenous communities.

Image of different prefabricated home designs courtesy of Samantha Eddy and Xiang Huo

Yeah. But again, with the proposal we talked about human capacity building programs and so as we would implement these electrifying solutions, we would want the community to also learn how to, you know, like how if something happened with the solar panel, they would be able to fix it themselves. They are training programs, be we can call them human capacity building programs and so I know Nááts’íilid is still kind of running these kinds of workshops, not like solar panels, but like recently they finished building a hybrid Diné octagon. So there are Diné Hogans that are covered in mud, but we have octagons and those are kind of the more contemporary structures of a hogan. And so I know the Nááts’íilid actually went through a workshop bringing the community members in and how they can build this hybrid, still using some of our traditional materials while also using contemporary materials and building, you know, a carbon free home. So yeah.

Earthen oven workshop lead by Nááts’íilid Initiative. Photo courtesy of Samantha Eddy

Ross 13:47
Yeah, well, I remember that that is one of the really interesting aspects of your proposal is to kind of implement those traditional octagon style homes or buildings is part of the larger proposal. And I mean that that seems really well engineered to kind of, I don’t know, and fit nicely with the larger Diné community there as far as like what their interests are, or what would get them interested or excited in this kind of idea. I guess what has been sort of your impression of the reaction or interest of the community with this.

Samantha 14:25
Yeah. So since graduating, you know, I don’t really interact in Nááts’íilid too much, but I hear, you know, I see the social posts. But when I was working with them and we were working on a separate grant, you know, these like the community members themselves, some are, of course, you know, wary because past projects, research projects, things get stopped, things don’t follow through. And so, our community is pretty wary with these kinds of things. But they’re also really happy with a lot of these things because, you know, we’re still here. You know, we’re also a community and they want to see these things happen. They want to see their community grow. They want more infrastructure, I just with what I’ve seen yeah, they’re happy.

Xiang 15:20
So, when I was visiting the community, I on the field trip and I mean the local community, they are very friendly and they would be happy to, you know, take the new technologies to change their lives, make it better. And also they like have this heart for, We don’t want to, you know, change too much. We want to preserve their culture, preserve the way they feel comfortable living. So that’s why we have this building design aligned with their culture. But rather than just replace everything with the modern, you know, houses, we want to preserve the culture.

Ross 16:14
Yeah, absolutely. That yeah, makes sense. I wanted to ask because I know that with the Inflation Reduction Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and some of those federal actions a year or so ago, that there was a significant amount of money, you know, millions of dollars that I guess was made available to for tribal communities. And it just made me wonder if maybe that might be a way as far as resources available to kind of actually implement or move forward ideas like yours. Do you know if that’s something that’s been explored specifically with this?

Xiang 16:59
Yeah, definitely. From my part, I focus on the renewables, solar power and battery storage to power the tribal communities and the we have successfully applied for federal funding to do this project. Our first project is in Kayenta and we have already built this microgrid for them and it’s these two great influence and we have some following funding opportunities and we are expanding this opportunity to all the rural communities. And also we have some like culture and architecture funding option in case that we do like Samantha. I mean, some of their team have been working on building some prototypes as I know they are building some prototypes of the new buildings in this area, I think.

The Nááts’íilid Initiative team. The Nááts’íilid Initiative is an Indigenous-led and coalition-driven Community Development Collaborative building sweat equity homes and other infrastructural developments in Chilchinbeto, Dennehotso, and Kayenta Chapters of Navajo Nation. Photograph courtesy of Samantha Eddy.

Ross 18:05
Oh, great. Oh, that’s really exciting. Well, just a couple more questions and then I’ll let you go. I guess the other thing I want to ask is just what has been the most enjoyable aspect of this research for both of you? What have you learned or what have you taken away that you want to share with others as far as your experience with this particular project?

Samantha 18:27
Yeah. Oh, I think for me, like just knowing that this kind of research is possible and people are interested in it, like my community as well as non-Indigenous people, they’re interested, you know. So, I have ideas already in my head, like, what else? What else can I do in architecture or with this kind of project? Because a lot of it was, you know, Xiang’s background but how can I expand on these like prefabricated homes? How can I expand on this map that I made with NREL? You know, I had like, we have these resources, like we have what we proposed, but like, how do we get this to the Navajo Nation? How do we get them to hear about it? You know, And like, you know, the people in the big seats, like how can we get this to them? And like actually wanting to make some kind of change or just like have these ideas with them?

Xiang 19:32
I totally agree. I feel that too. I mean, the most exciting, you know, it’s about how to make it happen. Like, we do research, we have our idea but how to deliver this idea. Like I strongly believe decarbonization through renewables is going to happen in the future. How to deliver these ideas to the public, like how to write a proposal to provide fundings from all those resources and how to use this funding to make the project a reality. I mean, it’s a lot more than just research and everything. Like we collaborated, we work with different people with different backgrounds. And I think it just I feel like I could learn a lot from everybody and eventually know how to make a project a reality rather than just an idea on paper.

Ross 20:35
Yeah, that’s great. Well, I wanted to ask if people want to learn more about this particular project or some of the other related organizations that are doing similar work or learn more about your research or be even supportive or get involved, can you provide some resources or I don’t know, a website or where would you send people?

Samantha 21:01
I would send people to Nááts’íilid’s website, or I don’t know if there would be like a link I can send you, but absolutely.

Ross 21:32
Awesome. Well, so Samantha Eddy and Xiang Huo, thank you so much for taking the time to revisit this project. It’s a really exciting idea and I just want to wish both of you the best of luck going forward.

Samantha 21:48
Yeah. Thank you.

Xiang 21:49
Okay. Thank you so much, Ross. Thank you.

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