Sunlight and Cellphones: Undergraduate Researchers Bring Solar Power to Haiti, One House at a Time

The village of Thoman is in a remote, mountainous area about a three-hour drive east of Port-au-Prince, Haiti, near the border with the Dominican Republic. Started as a mission after the 2010 earthquake, the non-profit organization But God Ministries sought to create a sustainable city for Haitians still living in tents. Home to approximately 6,000 people, the village has primitive housing, no running water, limited electricity, and no real industry to support its people. The mission, which is anchored by a health center built by But God Ministries, relies on volunteers to help improve the lives of the villagers through healthcare, education, and housing.

In May 2016, Frank Lambert, principal research engineer in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) at Georgia Tech, led a group of students from the Student Chapter of the IEEE Power & Energy Society (PES) on a trip to Thoman to provide one of the many resources the village desperately needed—an inexpensive, reliable source of power. The team installed a solar-powered micro grid system in the health center, which now provides 24/7 power and replaces a costly diesel generator.

Lambert, who has been going on mission trips to Haiti since 2013, also extended an opportunity to another student group from ECE’s Opportunity Research Scholars (ORS) Program, which matches undergraduate students with a Ph.D. mentor and a research project. The “Thing in a Hut” team, as they are fondly called by faculty advisor Ron Harley, was working on a prototype for a smaller solar-powered system that would provide LED light and phone charging for single family houses. These solutions, though small, can make a big impact on a community that typically has only kerosene lamps for light and often have to travel several miles to charge cell phones—their only connection to the larger world.

When the ORS team, which was made up of undergraduate students Edlawit “Julie” Bezabih, Elizabeth Robelo, Kyron Longwood, Tshim Tshimanga, Wondewosen Kihinet, and Ph.D mentor Liyao Wu, embarked on this project, they had no idea they would have the chance to actually install their system and see it work. For some, it was the first time they had traveled outside the United States and the experience broadened their world view significantly.

“The trip was something that has left an imprint on me that will last for the rest of my life. Not only was it the first time that I was given an opportunity to travel outside of the United States and grab a taste of the world, but I was also fortunate enough to participate in social and humanitarian efforts that improved the livelihood of the Haitian people. The trip also made me realize how much first world countries take things for granted,” said Longwood.

After lengthy testing in Atlanta, the team’s focus shifted to the installation of two identical prototypes. The first system was installed in the local pastor’s house. Unsure of what type of houses they would be working on, they faced some unexpected challenges. They found that the installation kit they brought wasn’t useful. The roof tops were weak, which meant only Bezabih and Robelo were light enough to perform the installation of the solar panels. In the case of the second house, which belonged to a woman and her children, the team had to create a new mount for the solar panels in order for them to be correctly positioned for maximum sun exposure. Luckily, the larger IEEE PES group was on hand to provide guidance and troubleshooting. While the first installation took three days, the second installation went more smoothly and took only one.

Ph.D. mentor Wu explained that the end result consisted of a controller board that interfaced with the roof panels to charge LED lights and phones via USB ports. After each installation, the team showed the family how the system worked and how to use it.

“Living in the US, we take electricity for granted; you do not think about whether a building will have it or not. It’s incredible that our system can change a life so drastically. Now they will not have the inconvenience of traveling several miles just to charge their cell phones. They will no longer have to use kerosene lamps at night. It's a great feeling knowing that you've given these people who have nothing one less thing to worry about it. The best part is knowing that as long as the sun is shining they will have electricity readily available,” said Robelo.

Two houses are now outfitted with the system, but there are millions more that could benefit from the work that future ORS teams hope to do. Now the task at hand will involve improving the prototype to make it lighter, smaller, and more efficient. And the possibility that Georgia Tech teams could teach the Haitians how to build and install the systems themselves would mean a scalable solution that provides employment.

To learn more about Opportunity Research Scholars and to get involved, please visit the website.

 

Images: 1) Julie Bezabih 2) ORS Team in Atlanta (from left): Elizabeth Robelo, Julie Bezabih, Wondewosen Kihinet, Liyao Wu, Kyron Longwood. 3) ORS Team inside the 2nd house with the owner and her daughter. 4) Liyao Wu, Kyron Longwood, Elizabeth Robelo, and Julie Bezabih. 5) Liyao Wu and Patrick Pierre. 6) Elizabeth Robelo and Julie Bezabih.

Contact: 

Ashlee Gardner
Online Communications Manager, School of ECE
ashlee.gardner@ece.gatech.edu