Installing solar systems in developing countries

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

World Watch photo: installing PV in a Central American country
World Watch photo: Installing PV in a Central American country

IREA’s major focus is renewable energy and sustainable living in Illinois but we have installed systems in the developing world on a voluntary basis when outside funding is provided. IREA has sponsored several projects in Central America and is interested in doing more of them. The projects were developed in response to requests from Illinois citizens seeking solar electric services for projects they were involved with in the developing world.

We asked Tom De Bates, a PV system installer from Geneva, and a member of Engineers Without Borders, to make a presentation at this year’s Renewable Energy and Sustainable Lifestyle Fair on his work with the nonprofit organization. They stress long-term involvements using local materials and labor. His presentation covered five projects in which he worked in the field.

One project was the construction of a 45-foot clear span bridge across an intermittent stream in Armenta, Honduras. A small construction team was formed which included locals to ensure community support. The bridge took eight days to build. They used local rebar and cement which was mixed on site. When floodwaters returned the bridge withstood the water flow.

A second project in Pignon, Haiti, involved IIT college engineering students. PV panels were installed to provide electricity to a local school. Local contacts wanted the panels welding into a steel frame to reduce the risk of theft. Heat from welding could damage the kevlar coating on the PV panels so water soaked rags were put in place to reduce the heat.

A third project involved seven engineering students from NIU in Nyegina, Tanzania. Solar materials were available from a store 40 miles away. Given existing road conditions numerous flat tires occurred and it took two days to secure the supplies. Two 100-watt modules with battery storage were installed to provide early morning and late afternoon lighting for the school. A 12-volt DC outlet was included to allow charging cell phones.

The fourth project in Quetzal, Mexico, involved installing a ram pump which lifts water from a flowing stream to a higher elevation into a storage reservoir. It works slowly without electricity and relies on hydraulic principles to lift the water. It took nine months to fill. A PV powered aeration pump was also installed to control algal growth. The water is used to irrigate a small farm operation and has a separate 600-liter water storage tank for human consumption. It is filled using a PV power pump that automatically shuts off when the tank is full.

The fifth is an ongoing project in Tanami, Guatemala, involving multiple sites. It can only by reached by boat which could be powered by solar electricity. The site includes two schools, one for boys and another for girls, and a small dental clinic to service the students. The PV installations include electrical service for lighting, water pumping and a tilapia farm. The farm provides fish to diversify the daily student diet of rice and beans.

While small, many of the projects provide the only electrical service in rural areas while improving the quality of life for their citizens. Volunteers gain from the interactions with a simpler culture. The world benefits from the installation of cleaner energy sources.

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