Solar studies

GORE, Va. – Engineers Without Borders International is bringing its expertise in solar technology to the United States, after spending decades honing its skills working to improve the lives of impoverished populations in developing countries.

The Shepherdstown-based organization is beginning an effort to educate students and homeowners about the nature and benefits of solar technology at the Land Celebration Center in Gore, Va.

After working for decades to bring solar infrastructure to the developing world, Engineers Without Borders is beginning a program locally to educate area homeowners on the benefits of solar power.

EWBI recently taught a seminar to a group of local eighth-grade science students.

“We had eighth-grade students come out. The science teachers just loved it. They went nuts over it.”

The classes allow students and homeowners to get hands-on experience with solar panels, using them to drive water pumps and other electrical equipment.

“The whole idea is for homeowners to get used to solar – not to be afraid of it,” said Roger Ethier, the executive director of EWBI.

Ethier said the classes, beginning soon, will help homeowners with three important aspects of moving to solar photovoltaic panels, which convert solar energy into electricity. Classes will help homeowners with design and pricing of solar systems, and show the procurement process for solar equipment. The classes will also give homeowners an understanding of the basic science and operations of solar photovoltaics.

“This is a simple technology, and it’s cost-effective,” Ethier said. “If you can afford the initial capital investment the payback, in my view, is well worth it. In six to 10 years the electricity you will be getting back is gravy, is free. You buy the thing today, you’ll be able to send your kids to school years later because of the savings.”

The most substantial barrier to entry, Ethier points out, is the initial cost of procuring and installing a solar system.

“It costs between $15,000 and $40,000, but you can decrease that cost 20 percent by doing it yourself,” Ethier said. “We want to teach the homeowners how to do the work themselves.”

Ethier explained that there are many ways for homeowners to get the initial capital to invest in solar systems, including home equity loans or rolling the cost of a solar system into the cost of a home when it is first built.

He said switching to solar can be an excellent investment for long-term homeowners and that pays for itself in short order.

“What I’ve found in this area … is that there is a payback in about six years. And the life expectancy of these panels is the life of the building. So it can be anywhere from 25 to 50 years. So after six years … it’s all free electricity. You’ve paid back your initial investment and all that you are generating you get for free.”

Ethier also points out that when solar panels produce excess energy, homeowners can actually be paid for selling electricity back to their energy company.

“The extra goes back into the grid, and they get paid for that,” Ethier said. “The utilities, by law, are required to pay retail back.”

And there are few, if any, upkeep costs associated with a home solar system, said Ethier. “The systems pretty much take care of themselves.”

EWBI’s only other U.S.-based solar project – for a farm near Mount St. Helens in Oregon – demonstrates the resilience of solar panels, said Ethier.

“When Mount Saint Helens blew, there was about three quarters of an inch of dust on the panels. All we did was wait for it to rain, and once it rained it washed (the dust) off. There was no problem. The systems were still operational.”60s,” Ethier said.

Ethier said he is surprised that renewable energy sources like solar and wind have not caught on more rapidly in the U.S.

“I come back to this country and I can’t believe that there is not much going on with renewables. There is more going on with renewables in developing countries than here in the United States.”

Most recently, Ethier traveled to the village of Kyabirakawa in southwestern Uganda to install a solar-powered water pumping system that is providing a reliable source of water to a school, orphanage and hospital as well as for local residents’ daily use.

“There’s a lot of kids on the streets because of malaria, AIDS and cancer. The nuns are taking them off the street and putting them in schools,” Ethier said. “We got involved with them about three years ago. We went over just on a goodwill trip. The conditions just blew my mind. It took me about two months to get over it, and I still choke up.”

Kyabirakawa had existing electric pumps to fill reserve water tanks. However, in an area where electricity is out between 50 and 80 percent of the time, Ethier said the water supply was highly unreliable.

The consequences of this unreliable, limited water system were palpable.

“Women in these countries do most of the work in the gardens and fields. They also pull buckets of water up from the well by rope,” Ethier said. “With this system, you have a storage tank with a faucet, and the women can just go there to fill their buckets.”

The local hospital was unable to use their flush toilets, and water had to be carried in by children in buckets – a situation that was less than ideal for a hospital, where cleanliness is a top priority.

“The next project is to put flush toilets in the schools for 2,000 kids.”

EWBI replaced their aging electric water pump with a new solar-powered pump.

“With this new pump, powered by solar, all of the storage tanks can be filled in 1 1/2 hours,” Ethier said. “That pump is going to be in there for 50 or 60 years – long after I am gone.”

The new pump was also able to draw much more water out of the aquifer, increasing the possibilities for local agriculture.

“We found that there was about four and a half times as much usable water in the aquifer than what they were using,” he said.

— Bryan Clark can be reached at bclark@spiritofjefferson.com.

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