Solar Panels: A Bright Idea
Why Solar Panels should be an integral part of EWB
Information and Education
One in every five people worldwide lacks consistent access to electricity and that is something we as a group do not think is acceptable (Energy Poverty). We however are not the only group who thinks that this is an issue that needs attention, there are hundreds of aid organizations working to deliver a better life to the communities that are home to these people. The specific group we are choosing to help is Engineers Without Borders because as a more technical group they will be more receptive to embracing new technology. In order to cure this energy crisis we believe Engineers Without Borders should add Solar Energy to their arsenal of tools. In this section I will specifically speak on why this technology meets the need from an educational standpoint, to see the other benefits of solar power (of which there are many) feel free to look through the other sections of our SMORE. There are two major needs when it comes to implementing solar power in these poor, remote communities. First the aid workers must be capable of installing it, and the community members must be capable of maintaining it after Engineers Without Borders leaves. The second need is the most obvious, because of the socio-economic challenges these households face, literacy rates will be relatively low with technical education almost non-existent (International Literacy). From an educational stand point in order for solar energy to be a success it needs to be built and implemented in a system that can be understood by the workers installing it and maintained by the community members. Our group’s solution is to develop a simple compact system that is comprised of a solar panel, a battery, a controller which is like the brain, and lastly the outlets. Criteria one is that it must be easy to install and considering the only installation needed is to plug the components’ wires in, represented by arrows in the images below. As you can see it does not take a degree in electrical engineering to complete this task. Second our product will be easily maintainable because solar energy in general requires minimal maintenance essentially avoiding the issue completely. Solar energy is one of the best energy generation methods for minimizing maintenance according to The Solar Company in 2015 primarily because of the fact there are no moving parts involved which minimizes wear and tear (Solar Panel Maintenance). Our solar energy system will allow Engineers Without Borders to easily deliver consistent power to the communities without requiring complex systems or a technical education. Implementing this will lead to hundreds of homes with a solar panel on their roof capable of powering lights and a small electronic device, meeting the need without unnecessary excess. When sunlight is the only available energy it can be tough for a community to escape a state of just sustaining itself day to day. A simple solar power system because of how easy it is to install and maintain can harness that energy and deliver it into the night for houses in need all over the world. You, Engineers Without Borders as well as the other aid organizations you work alongside of, need to begin using solar energy in the communities you help. This is so important to me because I believe when granted access to electricity, these communities can begin developing and escape sustainability. According to the International Energy Agency 1.3 billion people in the world are waiting for a light switch in their life, and solar energy can deliver that (Energy Poverty).
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Benefits to Society
In the mission statement of Engineers Without Borders, taken from www.ewb-usa.org/our-work/approach, it says that their goal is to empower communities to meet basic human needs and equip leaders to solve the world’s most pressing challenges. One of the best ways to empower communities is by providing them with a lasting source of power. This will cause empowerment because it will allow the communities affected by Engineers Without Borders to have an increase in their strides towards education and aid in the availability of medical assistance.
The National Education Association suggests that an average of ten minutes per grade level be spent studying per night. This means that by the time a student is in middle school, for example 5th grade, they should be spending about one hour in the evening studying. Currently in most third world countries, this extra study time is not possible because there is no safe and reliable light source to ensure that studying is achieved. According to Presidential Fellow and Energy and Climate Change intern Aven Satre-Meloy in his 2014 article, more than 70%, that’s 7 out of every ten people, of India’s school-going children study in the dark. If children such as these were given the opportunity to illuminate their studies at night they could be empowered to do better in school and later in life, have a greater impact on their community because of this extra study time.
Another major issue that many places visited by Engineers Without Borders face is that once the sun goes down, places such as hospitals close due to the fact that there is no light. In a 2012 p.b.s. article by Spencer Michel, Laura Stachel, an OB-GYN based in Berkeley, Calif., was interviewed after traveling to Northern Nigeria to study why so many women were dying in childbirth. “What I saw were some of the sickest patients I’d ever seen in my life — probably more complications than I’d seen in my entire career,” Stachel describes. “Yet the hospital did not have a reliable source of electricity. I watched (cesarean sections) where the lights would go out and the doctors literally finished with my own flashlight.” (n.p. Michels) By proving the places Engineers Without Borders serves with the valuable gift of electricity, doctors will be able to help patients no matter what time of day that they need help.
Therefore if a goal of Engineers Without Borders really is to empower communities in order to meet basic needs, solar panels are a necessary technology to do this job and provide these communities with the gift of education and health. According to the 2010 article by David Grimshaw professor and researcher of new technologies and Sian Lewis of the International Institute for Environment and Development, developing countries have almost 325 days of strong sunlight a year, which would deliver 6kWh of energy a day. That would power 60 light bulbs for an hour! Imagine the change from being completely in the dark to having one hour of light. So make the bright choice and use solar panels to light the path to community empowerment.
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Engineers Without Borders has the fantastic dream of connecting far off communities with creative engineering solutions. However these solutions over long distances can end up being fairly expensive. Being a non-profit, Engineers without Borders should want to stretch every dollar they’ve got to impact the lives of as many communities as possible, and using solar panels might just save a few bucks along the way. This technology, beyond its many other benefits, will help to reach this goal by reducing the financial burdens of this organization as well as the people it serves to around the world.
But what exactly are these financial issues? Engineers without Borders needs power. Power for their members during the completion of a project and power to continue running water pumps, lighting, and other improvements after a project has already been completed. Both of these activities require some sort of energy source, and traditional sources such as diesel generators can certainly rack up a bill in fuel costs over time.
According to a 2010 World Bank Energy report, low income communities across the world already spend around 15% of their income on fuels such as kerosene for cooking and lighting (Bacon). How can we expect these people who can hardly afford to turn on a lamp to continually purchase additional fuel to run generators? Obviously, the answer is that we don’t, but that means Engineers without Borders now has to foot the bill. Acquiring this funding has already proven to be a challenge, as the organization’s current online project map indicates that over 300 US chapters are working on projects worldwide, the majority of which require some sort of power supply (Engineers without Borders).
Solar energy is a perfect solution to meet the demands of this organization. Advances in this technology have already made photovoltaic panels competitive to existing sources of energy, such as diesel generators. According to a 2006 renewable energy report by the Emcon Consulting Group, after two and a half years of consistent use, solar panels break even with diesel generators, not to mention the benefits they bring after they pay for themselves (Emcon Consulting Group).
In terms of price stability, solar panels again beat out fuel powered generators. A 2008 Solar Electric Light Fund study on solar pumps was keen to note that fuel shortages and fluctuating diesel prices continue to affect the ability of poor communities to even obtain the fuel they need, making solar panels a much more reliable investment (SELF). Finally, the long term maintenance costs of solar panels also pale in comparison to diesel generators. According to the same study, solar modules only require a quick scrub down every 2 to 4 weeks whereas diesel systems need a skilled technician for regular upkeep, a rarity to find in remote locations (SELF).
Imagine the financial impact that these panels can have on remote communities across the globe. Now these people have 15% of their incomes back to invest in themselves and Engineers without Borders will have more funds to impact even more people! Hundreds of EWB chapters using solar panels worldwide will bring life changing power to remote communities free of charge for years to come and continue to leave a lasting impact even after a project has been completed.
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One other safety concern are wildfires being started because of incidents with kerosene lamps. These fires are mostly created through fuel contamination when being used in rural areas. Thousands of people are killed every year because of these types of fires, and these incidents are occurring in places that do not contain a power grid.
So what is a good solution? A solution that meets the necessary criteria...which is a reduction in the risk of health issues, and the reduction in the risk of fire danger. With that in mind, I believe solar panels are the proper solution to fixing this massive safety issue. Solar panels do not burn fossil fuels like the conventional fossil fuel fired generation technologies, which is what inhabitants in rural areas are using right now. This fact takes care of a lot of the health risks involved with what they are using now. And with electric light coming from energy stored up in solar panels, this is a very safe alternative as there is very little risk of fire.
Imagine the shocking statistics of non-smoking lung cancer, and blazing fires killing people going way down, because Engineers Without Borders decided to use solar panels that replace people's source of energy and light in rural areas. With the installation of solar panels, the people in that small village in Asia, Africa, and many other places, now have a brighter, safer future of clean energy and light.
People inhabiting rural areas without electricity probably believe hope is lost. Safe, secure electricity is for those across borders. Well we don't have borders, hope isn't lost for them, and safe and secure electricity can reach them by using solar panels.
Melik, James "Solutions sought to end use of kerosene lamps," BBC News World Service. (September 27, 2012)
Webster, George "Solar lamps replace toxic kerosene in poorest countries," CNN News. (February 1, 2012)
Environmental Benefits and Sustainability
The current primary energy sources have created huge problems. The climate change caused by the irresponsible utilization of fossil fuels throughout the world has had detrimental effects on our earth. President Obama has stressed the importance of solving the pollution problem of using fossil fuels as energy by creating a Clean Power Plan in 2015 to protect public health and create more of an emphasis on clean energy. He has expressed that "our climate is changing, its changing in ways that threaten our economy, our security, and our health" (Obama). Beijing, China first hand has seen the negative effects that the burning of fossil fuels creates. In an effort to grow and expand their economy, they have begun burning an excessive amount of coal that has led to a deadly smog prevailing throughout the city. A 2015 article by Oren Dorell of usatoday illustrates the severity of the pollution, as the blanket of fog is so thick, that people have to wear masks around the city, and just a week ago, Chinese authorities ordered schools to keep students indoors because the fog is so bad.
So how can Engineers Without Borders help? They can create solar panels in communities in undeveloped countries, creating a lasting, positive environmental change and creating opportunities for the communities to thrive. This will allow the communities to create a reliance on clean energy, instead of fossil fuels. Since solar energy is non-polluting, it does not release the harmful gases that fossil fuel energy creates, reducing the risk of damage to the environment (Kukreja). Although we aim to develop solar panels in smaller scale circumstances, like underdeveloped and developing communities, solar energy will reduce their dependence for a consistent supply of coal, or other fossil fuels, to produce electricity. After continuing to develop this technology in underdeveloped areas, enough communities will formulate a reliance on solar energy which will stimulate the desire to innovate and improve the technology, potentially leading to more wide-scale environmental benefits. Solar panels will be able to help the environment, as well as create a lasting change on the community. Solar panels can function without the use of power cables, enabling communities even in remote locations to have access to electricity through the use of solar panels (Kukreia). Due to the long lasting solar cells in the solar panels, they require very minimal maintenance and can run for a long time, allowing the communities to continue to develop and expand their energy sources as they grow as a community.
Solar panels will be able to create a huge impact on many areas. Engineers Without Borders can focus their non-profit efforts of helping communities to benefit other aspects as well, like the environment. Although we will continue to use fossil fuels as our primary source of energy in the near future due to its high efficiency and easy accessibility, we can begin to take the step toward the mass utilization of clean energy by providing it to underdeveloped countries that do not need a high energy source. Engineers Without Borders can create a lasting impact on communities, and on the world, by building solar panels in underdeveloped areas to enable communities to grow while creating a positive energy trend in their infrastructure.
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