SonLight Power Lights the Way to Learning

The summer of 2008 was a record-setting one for Cincinnati, Ohio-based non-profit SonLight Power Inc. (SLP). The company has been sending volunteers to Honduras to install solar electric systems at schools in the country in order to bring light and electricity to otherwise dark schools that had no access to power. The installation this summer at the Escuela Dionisio de Herrera school located in Caserio El Caracol, Honduras was the 50th installation of sustainable solar power by SLP.

The First Lady of Honduras, Mrs. Xiomara Castro De Zelaya, fully supports SLP’s work in her country. The 50th installation by SonLight Power also marked the kick-off of a cooperative project with one of her initiatives, the Honduran Healthy Schools Program, which will bring solar power to nearly 400 rural schools throughout Honduras.

Founder and executive director Allen Rainey, a former operations manager and journalist turned renewable energy advocate, brought SLP’s work to Honduras in 2001, installing solar photovoltaic (PV) systems in two medical clinics and two churches in Intibica.

The following year, 2002, SLP installed a PV system in Hope Children’s Center in Kinangop, Kenya, the first of several orphanages helped by SLP, as well as two more churches in Honduras.

In July 2003, SLP was recruited by a Honduran teachers association to install the first of 20 systems in schools located in remote rural areas around Conception Intibuca. SLP has returned every year and completed this project in 2006.

SonLight Power provides the equipment and expertise and receives supplies from, among others, SunWize Technologies, Electron Solar Energy and SBM Solar. Rainey serves as the lead technician on each and every project. He notes that one thing that the organizations needs is to find more qualified solar installers who are interested in volunteering for projects such as this. (See photo of Rainey, below checking the solar system wiring at an installation at an orphanage in Haiti.)

There are certain challenges to working in the developing world, says Rainey, and each installation is different. The team evaluates a number of factors before they decide what type of panels to use and, more importantly, how to get the panels there. “If we need mules, we do not take modules with glass,” he says.

Rainy explains that the systems have evolved over the years to take advantage of advances in technology and pricing. He says that SunWize helped to design the charge control panel that they currently use and that SBM Solar has been instrumental due to the design of its panels.

“SBM Solar provides a lot of our solar panel needs as they make a glass-free, lightweight, foldable panel that we take with us on the airlines, three to a bag as luggage,” he says.

But despite installation challenges, the benefits clearly outweigh the drawbacks.

“Bringing a stable power source to these very rural schools drastically changes the education program,” says Rainey. “Children in schools without electricity rarely have the opportunity to continue education past the sixth grade due to a variety of reasons including lack of motivation and educational tools. Now education will be interesting for teachers who now can use audio-visual aids as well as computers. Students become aware of the world more than a mile from their home — and are motivated to continue educational pursuits.

“Some communities occasionally close schools during the day so families can use all available help in planting and harvesting crops needed for survival. After dark there is little opportunity for education without electricity. Following a school lighting ceremony, a father thanked us for ‘taking the machete out of his daughter’s hands.’ She now has hope for a different life.”

In July 2007, SLP’s trip to Guatemala was canceled by their hosts due to increased violence in that country. With just three days until their scheduled departure, the team made hasty preparations to travel instead to Choluteca, Honduras to complete two school installations. (In the photo, left, a volunteer prepares panels for installation.)

Prior to the SLP teams’ return to the United States, they were introduced to Patricia Alonzo, the director of the Honduran Healthy School Program (HSP), based in the capital Tegucigalpa. At the meeting SLP was able to form a cooperative agreement with the HSP program and the the First Lady of Honduras, Mrs. Xiomara Castro De Zelaya, plans to help. She is minimizing import taxes, facilitating the customs process and assisting with transportation and storage for SonLight Power’s teams and equipment. The HSP project involves the installation of solar power in nearly 400 additional rural schools throughout Honduras. When complete, “the accumulated wattage will exceed 120 kilowatts (kW) — just in Honduran HSP schools,” says Rainey.

SLP returned to Honduras in early August to work on three more schools accompanied by a videographer. Videos of the installation process will be used for training, education and promotion of the HSP in both the United States and Honduras.

The whole team plus students after the most recent installation in Honduras.

 

In each of the three communities where the schools are located, the local mayor visited the site and expressed support. Rainey says that in order to complete the project, SLP will require 1,000 short-term team volunteers and more than US $1 million in equipment funding.

For more information about SonLight Power, its current projects, sponsors and how to contribute to its mission through the SLP School Sponsorship Program, visit the website, www.sonlightpower.org.

This is the fifth installation in our series on Renewable Energy in the Developing World.
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Jennifer Runyon has been studying and reporting about the world's transition to clean energy since 2007. As editor of the world's largest renewable energy publication, Renewable Energy World, she observed, interviewed experts about, and reported on major clean energy milestones including Germany's explosive growth of solar PV, the formation and development of the U.S. onshore wind industry, the U.K. offshore wind boom, China's solar manufacturing dominance, the rise of energy storage, the changing landscape for utilities and grid operators and much, much, more. Today, in addition to managing content on POWERGRID International, she also serves as the conference advisory committee chair for DISTRIBUTECH, a globally recognized conference for the transmission and distribution industry. You can reach her at Jennifer.Runyon@ClarionEvents.com

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