Maria Rodriguez sheds light on solar power in Peru

A few years before we retired from university teaching, Maria Rodriguez, an environmental educator from Lima, Peru, spent a month at the Taft Campus observing our teacher training program and attending graduate classes.

Maria kept in touch by mail, sent photos of her work with students, and continued to ask us to visit her in Peru. When we were asked to present a paper at an international auto emissions conference in Lima in 2000, we told her we planned to come. The conference was canceled as President Fujimori faced increasing pressure to resign due to political scandals; our visit was abandoned.

This past fall, she proudly announced she had earned an advanced degree and joined the faculty of the National University of Education. She once again invited us to visit her. While dimly aware of past problems in Peru such as long-standing guerrilla activity and an outbreak of disease from a failed experiment ending chlorination of drinking water, she assured us we would be safe. She also told us of Peru’s increasing interest in solar electricity.

While we agreed to come, we had too many things to do before leaving to really acquaint ourselves with what to expect from our visit. Communication was erratic and somewhat incomplete as e-mail is expensive for her, and while her English is far superior to our non-existent Spanish, there were gaps in understanding.

We finally agreed to give a lecture on solar electricity on the Friday of our arrival and the Thursday of our departure. In between, we would see the sites of Lima and make a trip to Machu Picchu. We were offered housing and food during our stay. Frequent flier miles from years of credit card use allowed us one free round-trip flight.

When our scheduled flight to Peru was delayed a day due to icing in Atlanta, plans for the first day’s lecture were canceled. A brief bout with intestinal cramping and the high cost of the trip to Machu Picchu left us with time to fill. Maria developed some surprising alternatives for us.

She scheduled a meeting with the president of her university, who told us of their interest in restoring the rainforest and desire to bring solar electricity to its schools. We met the curriculum director for the Ministry of Education, who asked us to help develop a solar electric education program for eighth grade students and pilot it with five schools next academic year.

The head of facilities told us of their plan to install solar electric service on five rural schools this coming year. Each school will receive five computers to use with CDs providing curricula. They asked us to submit a bid to provide solar panels to power the systems. Over the next 10 years, they hope to install 5,000 systems throughout the country.

We visited other universities in Lima. The Dean of Physics for San Marcos, the oldest public university in America, asked us to help find visiting professors to provide educational experiences with solar energy. We toured the Catholic University’s sustainable energy demonstration site, which offered a complete low-technology energy system for rural villages.

On our last day, we traveled to the National University of Education for Peru and gave a slide presentation on solar electricity and restoring natural habitats in Illinois. The president of the university translated our presentation as we made it. The audience consisted of about 50 faculty and students. At the end, we were bedecked with ribbons to honor our presence and asked whether we would return to teach a short course on solar electricity.

Why such a strong interest in solar electricity? Peruvian electricity costs $0.29 per kilowatt hour. Usable sunlight averages 5.5 hours daily outside Lima. Many rural areas in the highlands and the forest are without electrical service and are too isolated to be connected to the grid. Photovoltaics would provide them with keenly needed inexpensive power.

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