27 Apr

Southern Albertans powered up schools in Guatemala using Solar PV

Linda Zhao, IEEE Southern Alberta SB chair, Rafae Malik Southern Alberta PES SB Chair and Anis Ben Arfi IEEE Southern Alberta SIGHT chair.

In several undeveloped countries, children are required to work or do chores before and after school that leaves them with no choice but to study at night by the dim light. The lack of electricity forces the families to use a significant part of their income to buy candles or to run kerosene lamps. Hence, Light Up The World (LUTW), a non-profit organization, equips the less the privileged families in the undeveloped parts of the world with Solar Systems to generate electricity for lights and charging communication devices.

LUTW organized a trip to Guatemala during the February 2018 reading break in which twelve students and a faculty member from the Schulich School of Engineering participated as technical volunteers. The organization has been working with rural indigenous Mayan communities in the Western Highlands of Guatemala since 2006 and facilitating student trips to the region.

The team started with evaluating the existing photovoltaic (PV) systems installed by LUTW in the houses located in the village near Todo Santos, in Northern Guatemala. Some of the PV Systems were installed 6-year-ago and still powering the homes efficiently. However, some of the installations required maintenance and upgrades to the panels and batteries. The following 4 days were dedicated to installing PV System at an elementary school and the community center.

The team installed 40 LED bulbs (DC load) across the school that lights up 5 classrooms, a storage room, and the administration office. LUTW team along with the volunteers from the University of Calgary installed all the required wiring, conduits, switches and Inverter connections. Moreover, the AC receptacles were also installed in the classrooms that have now opened the possibilities of utilizing educational electronic devices such as laptop or iPads in future.

The team also helped with installing the solar system for the community center that was currently being powered by the commercial diesel generator. Once the system was commissioned, all the lights and the receptacles worked as expected and no troubleshooting was needed.

This trip allowed all the volunteers to reflect and realize all the facilities that we might take as granted in North America. Such realization sparked the passion within the students to get involved with the activities that would encourage the use of renewable and sustainable systems across the world.

One of the fun facts about this trip is that a student shared his pedometer reading at the end of the day. The pedometer showed 6 KM of walking and 30 floors climbed that was based on climbing the ladder for wires installation. Another volunteer mentioned after finishing the installation at the school: ” For the first time, I feel okay with leaving and keeping the lights on.

In addition to the learning technical skills, students learned about the culture in northern Guatemala of the Mam tribes, the music, the agriculture and the lifestyle. In fact, multiple students used a Spanish translations phone apps to hold a long conversation and made several local friends.

The group also had the chance to visit a coffee farm, during the harvesting season and learn about the coffee production process. They also stayed in Antigua, Guatemala and discovered the traditional city and the beauty of the landscapes.

This experience was very beneficial for the team, helping them realize the value of engineers working in a team, leveraging the knowledge they acquired for the benefit of the underserved communities.

This trip was possible with generous donations from AltaLink, Schulich Students Activities Fund, Shell Experiential Energy Learning, Student Union Travel and Conference Funding, IEEE Southern Alberta Section, IEEE Canadian Foundation Special Grant and University of Calgary IDEAS Fund.  The student team would like to thank Light Up The World an, in particular, Christopher Schulz, Alex Jahp and Jean-Claude Fouere for their advice and professionalism, and for providing all the necessary means to make this project a success. The team also are grateful to Dr. Hamid Zareipour for his help during the installations and for agreeing to the squire and manage the student team tirelessly during the trip.