Philippine students visit

By Drs. Robert & Sonia Vogl
President and Vice President, Illinois Renewable Energy Association

We recently hosted a group of 24 high school students from Mindanao, Philippines, their teachers, and Northern Illinois University (NIU) program coordinators for a morning visit to our farm and Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) headquarters.

The students, who came from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds, were part of the “11th Philippine Youth Leadership Program: Environmental Leadership in the Philippines: Developing Youth as Agents of Change and Ecological Activism … a four-week U.S.-based exchange program on responsible citizenship, community service leadership and action plan development.”

As part of their studies, the students are asked to design small projects they can implement on their return home.

They were interested in our efforts in sustainable living with a focus on solar energy and ecological restoration. We designed our presentations, discussions and activities to take into account that they come from a tropical area.

We value the opportunity to interact with the students, as it is they who will face the growing environmental impacts of an expanding global economy on a full planet. With deteriorating environmental conditions, it is important to address these concerns from a global perspective.

After being introduced, we asked about the reliability of their electrical service. They laughed and stated it is off frequently for long periods of time. Demand exceeds supplies, and rolling blackouts are common. Typhoons and floods also disrupt service. We then asked what kinds of energy are used in the Philippines, especially the area in which they live. They quickly responded coal, oil, geothermal and hydro. Production from the hydro plant is dropping, as silt has filled in much of the basin behind the dam, reducing its water-holding capacity.

One student volunteered that nuclear was used, but another corrected him indicating that a plant was partially built, but citizen opposition stopped the project, and it now stands empty.

They also volunteered that there are some wind generators and isolated solar installations in rural areas. They indicated solar electricity was too expensive, as there are no government programs supporting its use.

Since they live in a tropical area, there is little need for home heating. They were surprised to learn that hot water for home use could be heated by the sun. When asked about which country has the most solar hot water heating systems, they guessed it was Germany, but were surprised that it was China.

For solar electricity, we started with a discussion of our 60-watt stand-alone system with battery backup powering two lights and a small radio and its applications in rural areas. We discussed the systems IREA provided to small medical clinics in Guatemala and Jamaica.

We included some hands-on elements in the session with students manipulating small solar panels and motors to position them to get the maximum production from the sun. They also examined four different full-size panels, including two that were damaged, to determine their age and output. We gave a physics teacher chaperone two old solar kits.

After the stand-alone system, we examined the grid-tied system of solar and wind power, including an examination of the centralized inverter and battery backup system.

Their second topic of interest was ecological restoration. We discussed the importance of ecological restoration focusing on the rich resources of the Philippines, the damage being done to them, and efforts to restore them. We briefly discussed our work with prairies and oak woodlands using fire as a tool, and pointed out that not all U.S. programs are the same. For example, in northern Wisconsin, at times during the summer, outdoor fires for any reason are forbidden. We pointed out that organizations such as The Nature Conservancy work internationally on many differing habitats.

Since species differ between Illinois and the Philippines, we focused on ecological techniques, ignoring names, unless one of them asked about a particularly interesting plant. Rather, we focused on basic concepts and let them experience some techniques of ecological research. At one point, when they were told they had just conducted random sampling, they responded with surprise and delight.

They toured our hoop house, which extends the growing season, and the greenhouse, where tender plants are started. They were fascinated with the animals, wondering why we have such fat chickens. We explained that hardy breeds survive better in our climate.

The last topic of interest was solar cooking, a non-resource consumptive way to prepare meals. They were shown two types of solar cookers, and smelled the delicious aromas coming from them. Several of them decided this would be their culminating project.

We hope the students’ visit to our farm provided them with many ideas and concepts and the motivation to try them at home.

Drs. Robert and Sonia Vogl are founders and officers of the Illinois Renewable Energy Association (IREA) and coordinate the annual Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair. E-mail

From the April 30-May 6, 2014 issue

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