Students devoting spring break to sustainability in Honduras

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — “The mission behind this program is the very reason I chose electrical engineering as a major,” said Penn State senior Mayen Akpan. "My goal before starting college was to help developing nations with their power problems and to create sustainable jobs for their citizens. I am more excited every day leading up to this trip.”

“The mission behind this program is the very reason I chose electrical engineering as a major.”

Last weekend, Akpan and 10 other Penn State engineering students left for Honduras to spend spring break designing, building and installing a solar photovoltaic (PV) system on the roof of a day care center in Roatán. The trip is part of Penn State’s Renewable Energy for Central America (RECA) program, which is committed to bringing students and certified electrical contractors together to foster and advance the adoption of renewable energy solutions and energy savings plans for Roatán’s island communities.

“Students will have the opportunity to be leaders in all aspects of the solar installation,” explained Jude Simpson, RECA program coordinator. "This immersive experience challenges students to draw from their surroundings, experience, creativity and insights in order to participate in the new environment.”

"This immersive experience challenges students to draw from their surroundings, experience, creativity and insights in order to participate in the new environment.”

Developing countries face significant challenges to affordable, reliable and clean energy. Electricity is expensive in Honduras, roughly four times what it costs in the United States. In addition, the grid is supplied by burning diesel fuel, an unsustainable, nonrenewable resource. Roatán, the largest of Honduras’s bay islands, averages seven hours of sunshine a day — enough solar energy to supply most of the island’s electrical needs.

The RECA students will spend spring break partnering with Vegas Electric, an electrical contracting company, and will mount a 2.5 kW solar PV system on the Roatán Bilingual Early Childhood Daycare Center in Coxen Hole. The system is sized to help offset demand from the existing electrical grid and provide clean, renewable and less costly energy.

To prepare for their trip, the students enrolled in a Solar PV Design and Construction course offered this semester. “Students learned about solar PV and job site safety. They put together a racking system, ran grounding wire and installed a six-panel solar PV system,” described course instructor Sarah Klinetob. “Each student completed a home-energy walkthrough, solar suitability and sizing study for their apartment or dorm room to compare production and paybacks of installations in Roatán with cities experiencing different sun climates and electricity situations.”

“I love doing community service, and I love the work I do in the lab and in school,” said sophomore Kristen Myatt. “This program allows me to do both! I can marry my two passions and use my chemical engineering education to help people save energy.” 

“I love doing community service, and I love the work I do in the lab and in school. This program allows me to do both! I can marry my two passions and use my chemical engineering education to help people save energy.”

The Roatán day care center used approximately 9,000 kWh in 2011. The solar system that will be installed by the student team can yield up to 33 percent savings on their energy bill.

The students will develop cultural awareness and practice global citizenship by engaging with the community and promoting renewable energy technologies.

“This will be my first international experience,” said David Brook, a senior majoring in energy engineering, “and I’m looking forward to the insights it will provide on how other countries operate.”

“This will be my first international experience, and I’m looking forward to the insights it will provide on how other countries operate.”

In addition, for the first time, Penn State alumni have been invited to work side-by-side with the student team. Brenda Kelly Rowe, 1986 civil engineering graduate and founder of GRE Engineering, has offered her time and expertise to the students. “This project in Honduras will be a great ‘lessons learned’ opportunity for me. I look forward to working with the future engineering leaders and alumni of PSU,” said Rowe.

Another first for student teams, they have created a RECA blog to share their experiences in Roatán. Visitors can already see photos and videos of the RECA team preparing for the trip, assembling solar arrays and even practicing their dancing. More pictures, stories and personal reflections will be uploaded while they are on-site so readers can feel as though they are a part of this immersive experience.

The RECA program was launched in March 2009 when the program’s first participants, 12 students in the Penn State chapter of the National Electrical Contracting Association (NECA), installed a 2.5kW solar PV system on the Sandy Bay Alternative School on Roatán, Honduras, with support granted by ELECTRI International. The program provides a model for other student NECA Chapters across the United States. The 2009 project won an award from the prestigious Clinton Global Initiative University, where university students are challenged to commit to implement innovative solutions to global challenges.

For more information about RECA, please visit www.sustainability.psu.edu or contact Jude Simpson, program coordinator, at jms1059@psu.edu.

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Last Updated April 29, 2013