Jumping the power lines

CU engineers install renewable energy systems in Haiti

photo courtesy of Matt Jelacic/Alan Mickelson

Forget the grid. For the developing world, forget the power lines and the coal-fired electricity they deliver. In developing countries, renewable energy sources are the answer to getting people online, powering up their cell phones and running computer labs in schools.

The University of Colorado Mortensen Center in Engineering for Developing Communities has been undertaking projects of that nature since it was founded in 2009.

“Creating a world where all people can enjoy a safe, secure, healthy, productive and sustainable life … should be a priority for the engineering profession,” Bernard Amadei, director of the Mortensen Center, is quoted as saying on the center’s website. “Improving the lives of the 5 billion people whose main concern is to stay alive by the end of each day on our planet is no longer an option for engineers; it is an obligation.”

So on Jan. 8, two University of Colorado engineering professors and a graduate student departed for Haiti to begin work on a project to provide solar power to a school and launch a vocational training program at a refugee center in Leogane, near the epicenter of the earthquake that occurred two years ago.

The goal is to build a vocational program that will train people in green energy or localized small energy systems, says Alan Mickelson, one of the two professors who went.

“There’s no energy grid to speak of in Haiti, so you can’t plug anything in. Everybody has to have their own power locally,” Mickelson says. “The idea was, we will go there and set up a couple of different kinds of renewable energy systems. We’ll set them up in a modular system within the compound, then train some of the teachers on how to build and maintain systems.”

The Haitians who are trained in the systems will also be taught how to train others to build and maintain them by working with the 16- to 20-panel photovoltaic system installed at the center. The solar panels used will even be produced by a company started 18 months ago in Haiti, and as many of the other parts as possible will be sourced locally as well. The system should provide energy to power lighting at the school and run a computer lab.

“Renewable energy actually, in the developing world, is easier than anything else,” Mickelson says. Haiti, in particular, has the benefit of having a lot of sun, prevailing winds from the Caribbean Sea, and water running down the mountains — opening up plentiful options for solar, wind and hydro power.

“This wealth of renewable energy systems really hasn’t been tapped at all,” says Mickelson, who has also worked on renewable energy projects in Peru and Nepal. The project in Peru has enabled rapid reporting of malaria cases and medical emergencies.

“My main research area has been nanotechnology and very small optics, so it’s good to get out and apply things,” Mickelson says. “Most of the research I’ve done has been laboratory research over the last 30 years, and it’s all been support and applications for communications, but it’s kind of fascinating to get out into the world … and see how these new technological innovations work with people.”

These projects also allow future generations of engineers a chance to experience and engage with engineering work in the places it’s critically needed.

“We need to give them a more broad, a more complete education, rather than just mathematics and laboratory science, and I think this is a really good one,” Mickelson says.

Matthew Hulse, an engineering graduate student who joined the trip to Haiti, calls the trip a success and says the experience was eye-opening.

“I think that most of the information and my expectations before the trip had to deal with the high level of what’s going on in the country, like major aid involvements with big organizations that are involved on the ground,” Hulse says. “But being in the country, outside of the city of Port-au-Prince, and seeing conditions with my own eyes, for example, how many people are using the one water pump that’s available in town or how many children are living in a small shack that was built by an aid organization, was reinforcing of what the situation is like even two years after the earthquake.”

The team will return over the next year to continue exploring possibilities for the project, developing the program to train Haitians to train others locally in installing solar panel systems.

“Instead of doing energy education in someplace like the United States, to do it somewhere where real results may translate to having a greater impact in the short term I think is really important,” Hulse says. “And Haiti is definitely a country that needs an opportunity like that.”

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