During Native American Heritage Month, Berkeley Mechanical Engineering spotlights a prominent Native American alumna, Suzanne Singer. Originally from Flagstaff, Arizona, Suzanne is a member of the Diné (Navajo) tribe. She earned her BS in Mechanical Engineering from the University of Arizona and her Masters and PhD from UC Berkeley in Mechanical Engineering. Since graduating, she has had an incredibly successful and impressive career. She worked at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory as a postdoctoral researcher and then as an Energy Systems and Thermal Analyst. In 2016, she founded Native Renewables, which aims to bring solar energy to Native American communities. She received the 2019 U.S. C3E Entrepreneur award.
Amanda Glazer (AG): What motivated you to found Native Renewables? Can you tell us more about the work that you do (i.e., current and past projects)?
Suzanne Singer (SS): The idea for Native Renewables started back in 2014. The Navajo Nation had an energy summit, and I was having dinner with some of my colleagues. I happened to meet Wahleah Johns, the current executive director of Native Renewables. An article had been just recently published about me, which she read and said we should talk. We figured out that we both lived in Oakland, one neighborhood away from each other. Fate, I guess.
For about two and a half years after that, we talked about energy and compared notes. The more we talked, the more we realized our mutual frustration that so many homes on reservations didn’t have electricity. The estimate right now is about 15,000 homes on the Navajo Nation alone. The other thing we talked about is that there’s a lot of systems on the reservation that were donated but many of them no longer worked because there was no one to maintain it. From that, Wahleah said, “We should just start our own company,” and try to really tackle and address this.
We formed officially at the end of 2016. Since then we’ve gone through a huge process of narrowing down what we want to do, because when we first started we had so many ideas. After we started planning out all the steps for each idea, we realized there was no way we were going to be able to do all of them. So, we focused on three main programs.
The biggest one that we are working on is called the Navajo Clean Energy program – providing power for the 15,000+ homes currently without electricity. We want to build the infrastructure to make it a sustainable program. Part of that is working on designing a financing program that makes it affordable for families to make monthly payments and also be able to own the system when it’s paid off. The other is trying to build an economy and have local Native people be able to do the installations themselves and be able to maintain them. We have a workforce training program, and our goal was to be able to hire those trainers to do the installs for us. Unfortunately, the timing is a little off but we are still hoping to be able to bring on everyone that wants to participate. There are so many other pieces that we are working through. It’s challenging, but it’s really, really exciting.
The second program we have is called Outreach and Education. We want to build the technical knowledge of families to help them sustain their systems long-term. Part of the education effort is helping people of all ages understand that photovoltaic (PV) systems have limitations. For example, you can’t plug in a washer/dryer for systems that have been installed historically. Our goal is to discourage families from plugging in anything they want into a system that was not designed to be able to do that.
If you take really good care of the systems, they’re fine for 20 years or more. If you don’t, they can last for as little as 2 years because the batteries die quickly. Part of the education and outreach is our one-day solar workshop events at some of the chapters around the community. There are 110 chapters on Navajo Nation. We participate in STEM events as much as we can afford to. We’re also building our own educational materials in both English and Navajo, so we have those available to hand out to people. We are trying to get them to understand their load and how much energy and electricity they use will help dictate the size of their system and how much they can use their system.
The third program we have is called “Triage.” The goal is to help families whose systems don’t work anymore, to try to understand what could have gone wrong, and what a potential solution for them might be. The hard part is a lot of times the batteries are dead, and batteries are expensive.
How was it at the beginning? Did you get a lot of support?
Our relatives and the people that trust and know us were very supportive. They know there’s a huge need on the reservations and in local communities for power, and there’s not a great infrastructure to meet the needs of all families across the reservation. There are some entities that do work, which is great, but more is needed.
We often get asked how we are going to make money with this company to make it sustainable. It’s good to have business-minded supporters trying to be more diligent on how we move forward and make the program last longer. We haven’t had a lot of opposition. When we do, sometimes it’s because of the lack of trust. Historically, Native people have gotten screwed over and over again so we just sort of got in the habit of asking “who are you and what do you want from me?” As part of the first interaction we have with the customer, we want them to understand that we aren’t trying to profit off of them. We’re local, so we’re going to be around. Also, our families are there, we are from there, so if something goes wrong, we are going to be held accountable.
Is a main goal of the education efforts to make the program more sustainable over time?
Yes, absolutely. The hope is that the better-educated folks are, the fewer maintenance calls there will be. It can get costly both with your time and expenses to travel. I think our longest drive was 4 hours one way to go visit someone. The more we can reduce those calls the better, because we will have more time to concentrate on other efforts.
How has the increased public awareness surrounding climate change and renewable energy affected your work?
I think part of what has helped is in terms of fundraising is when our work aligns with the missions of others. Really thinking about the climate impacts has been helpful. One thing we learned is that a lot of families that don’t have electricity use gasoline generators. Sometimes those families will place it right next to open windows and there’s fumes that come off of it. We also consider the greenhouse gas emissions that occur when families use generators. We try to estimate the emissions that are offset by replacing a generator with a Solar PV system.
When did you first get interested in engineering?
My parents are both STEM people. My dad has an electrical engineering background. My mom has a programming background. She was a cartographic technician for US Geological Survey. So, I think the engineering science mentality has always been there even though I didn’t recognize it until much later. For example, I helped take apart things, look at them, clean them and put them back together. I didn’t really realize that was part of the engineering process.
When I was younger, I liked math, so I started studying math. At some point I realized, ‘I need to touch something I can’t do theory anymore.’ So, I transitioned to an engineering/math major for my undergrad. It was great. It was math, but I got to test out different types of engineering which was awesome. I actually ended up changing my major and settled on mechanical engineering.
How did you settle on mechanical engineering? How did you decide to go to grad school?
I did the NASA Space Grant program at the University of Arizona, a year long internship program. I took a mechanical engineering class and learned about the program through my professor, Alfonso Ortega. For the internship, my project was to look at the heat transfer of simulated integrated system components. I tested the impact of the configuration on the heat transfer of a whole circuit board while cooling with a wind turbine to simulate a fan. I loved it. It was hands on. Because of this experience, I decided to switch to the mechanical engineering major.
My advisor was the same person who said I should go to grad school. I had no clue what to expect. He told me I can find a way to get grad school paid for. So, I applied, was accepted, and decided to go to Berkeley.
How was your time at Berkeley?
Berkeley was a rude awakening. There’s a lot of parts of the research that I didn’t understand and it was really hard trying to adjust and adapt. The biggest help my first year was having family support. I tell a lot of people that I almost dropped out my first year. I was talking to my mom and she said, “It doesn’t matter what you do, we support you.” It’s not my personality to give up, so I decided to keep going. It was a great experience — learning about how to do research has benefited me in my career, even though I don’t do that particular research anymore. At the time I was working with Arun Majumdar and studying heat transport in materials in hopes that it would improve the efficiency of thermoelectric devices. The fourth year that I was there I learned about the Tribal Energy Program offered at Sandia National Labs. It sounded so cool: You spend a summer with them and get to tour different tribal reservations and get to learn about the different renewable energy projects that they have going. I spent more than a year in that program. I realized I needed to finish my thesis and change what I do, because I enjoyed the program so much. Seeing a path to help Native people with my technical expertise was what I wanted to do. After I finished grad school, I worked at Sandia while trying to figure out how to make the transition.
Grad school was hard but valuable. It’s fascinating to realize that you’re with the top students from other countries. At some point, I had to stop comparing myself to them and start using them as resources to learn from.
Are there one or two accomplishments that you are most proud of?
Career-wise with Native Renewables, the accomplishment I am most proud of is our first workforce training program. It’s 7 to 8 weeks long. We have 10 really awesome participants that are doing hands-on and classroom training for off-grid solar. It’s a lot of work to plan it but it has been so rewarding. It helps that they have great things to say about what we are doing.
Personally, I’m most proud of getting my PhD. That was hard, so I was really happy when it was done and I was finished.
What do you think some of the barriers to entry are for Native students in STEM?
I’ll speak specifically to Natives from rural communities. A lot of the barriers start when you are younger, K-12, which puts you behind everybody else by the time you get to college. I mentioned earlier there are 15,000 homes without electricity, so that’s a huge disadvantage when it comes to doing homework. There’s probably a larger population that doesn’t have reliable internet access for the home, making it hard to use online resources. There are kids that take the bus two to three hours one way every day. There are dirt roads that can get muddy and awful for buses to have to drive through. So just getting to and from school can be a huge challenge.
Another big barrier for Native people can be a cultural barrier. One of the hardest things for me was getting back home for family commitments. I have a huge family and there’s a lot of events that I missed out on. Some families are really engaged in their cultural practices. Being able to get away for those can be challenging. Being away at school had a negative effect on me, because I felt like I had to compromise and let my family down.
In terms of improving, I encourage companies that have a hard GPA cutoff to try to understand what students go through. Some of the students I’ve met are amazing and do great things, but they have a ton of other responsibilities at home that prevent them from investing more time in their education. I could have missed out on some great opportunities if you used my GPA as a measure of my potential.
On a more positive note, what do you feel are some of the Native community’s greatest strengths?
We are smart and resilient people. We have amazing cultures. We’ve survived lots of historical trauma, so to still be living, to still have our language intact and to be able to practice our culture is really amazing. When I go and speak to younger students, I try to talk up more of the historical, engineering feats of indigenous peoples around the world. Hopefully it’s cool enough to get Native youth more interested in STEM.
What are some examples of that?
Some Native peoples built homes into rock cliffs. The structure was designed so that in the winter time when the sun was lower it would directly shine on and light and heat the homes, but in the summer time the cliff overhang acts as a shade to keep it cooler in the summer. That’s one example that I like to talk about with students because it is an example of passive solar.
I went to this talk a few weeks ago by math professor Dr. Henry Fowler who is in the documentary Navajo Math Circles. He talked about the geometry that is present in the design of our cultural and traditional buildings. He told stories of tracking the seasons based on the stars. These examples are super cool, being able to connect astronomy, geometry and cultural stories.
Amazing! Any other strengths?
I think having strong family and community ties is important. Sharing my story is great because the more you see Native people in STEM fields the more attainable it seems. It’s not crazy to see that you can accomplish so much.