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The power of one

Juneau resident brought hope, solar power to African villages

Posted: October 2, 2011 - 12:01am
Juneau resident Cayleigh Allen drills a hole the old fashioned way, installing a solar panel in Tanzania.  Paul Franzosa
Paul Franzosa
Juneau resident Cayleigh Allen drills a hole the old fashioned way, installing a solar panel in Tanzania.

Juneau-Douglas High School graduate Cayleigh Allen, a student at the Oregon Institute of Technology’s newly accredited Renewable Energy Engineering program, spent a little more than a month of her summer in Tanzania as a volunteer, maintaining and installing solar panels in rural villages. The program, through which Allen and her fellow students volunteer, Solar Hope, connects universities in developed countries with governmental agencies in developing countries to bring renewable energy to schools and hospitals. The organization has a lofty goal of installing 1 gigawatt of renewable power in Africa by the year 2020, starting with installations in Tanzania.

When Allen arrived in Tanzania, she was admittedly nervous, having learned a great deal about renewable energy engineering and installation, but having never conducted an installation. On day two, Allen and two other students, with the local Solar Hope assistant and two local electrical technicians, reported to an installation site from the previous summer’s trip, ravaged by wind and with components in a pile on the floor. Allen described sitting in the rafters, rewiring the system, even as the sky darkened. Finishing the repair-cum-installation by the light of headlamps, Allen and her peers were ecstatic when the flip of the switch proved their efforts successful. She explained most of her previous projects yielded results after multiple attempts, so this early success was a highlight of the trip.

Based in Iringa, Tanzania, the students installed solar panels and electrical wiring in schools and hospitals in neighboring villages. The size of each system varied in wattage and the number of people served, but sites are off the grid and include buildings for schools, clinics, or similarly important services. Allen’s installation site was a health clinic, where the system she and her peers installed powered more than a dozen lights, allowing the clinic to serve patients around the clock without reliance on lanterns. Each volunteer is tasked with raising money to cover the cost of his or her plane ticket, as well as materials needed for the installation he or she leads. Solar Hope collects donations year round, while volunteers raised funds for their program costs leading up to the trip each year.

The 2011 volunteer group not only installed 10 solar powered DC systems in rural Tanzanian villages, but also had the opportunity to experience Tanzanian culture and its natural beauty. The volunteers were able to visit a Maasai village, where they partook of a traditional Maasai meal and viewed a traditional Maasai jumping dance. During free time, volunteers experienced a walking safari accompanied by park rangers, where they saw hippos, monkeys, and crocodiles. Ultimately, lives were changed for both volunteers and recipients of the new solar power systems. Allen expressed she still had a lot to think about after the trip, but as she assumes most people feel after such an experience, the disparity between lives in a developed country and a developing country is stark. Allen found it fulfilling to take a hands on approach and to make such a tangible improvement in the quality of life for those affected; she hopes to participate in the program again next summer.

For more information on the program, visit solar-hope.org.

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