Capturing sunlight to increase access to water

July 27, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — In spring 2018, Department of Architectural Engineering students helped build two solar energy systems to help increase access to water in Roatán, Honduras. Each system will help to lessen the electricity costs from water pumping in the community of West End.

As part of their AE 297C: Solar Photovoltaic Applications course, 24 students worked in collaborative teams to plan and design the projects and ultimately assemble the solar systems in Roatán. Fundraising and coordination for the projects were completed by student members in Penn State’s National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA) Student Chapter.

David Riley, professor of architectural engineering; Somayeh Asadi, assistant professor of architectural engineering and Rachel Brennan, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering, served as co-advisers for the spring break and May installation trips to Roatán.

The two solar electric systems were designed by two student organizations, Engineers Without Borders and the NECA Student Chapter. After a site visit to Roatán to meet with community leaders, these teams helped design systems and raise more than $30,000 for the necessary project equipment. Two sets of teams were then formed to assemble and test the systems in collaboration with Vegas Electric, an on-site electrical contractor, that will provide ongoing maintenance and operation of the systems.

In addition to building the photovoltaic (PV) systems, students also applied their engineering and leadership knowledge in a real-life, interactive setting by contributing to environmental awareness and promoting sustainability in Roatán. These outreach efforts centered around the creation of a bilingual brochure to explain the project to community members and an operations manual for a well pump operator, who is tasked with operating the solar systems.

The students also designed a miniature solar water pumping system to educate children at a local school about solar energy.  A solar demonstration kit was presented to the children’s teacher in support of science and math lessons about energy. 

This ongoing partnership between Penn State and Roatán is coordinated by Riley.

“The outreach projects are a critical part of this experience. Our students need to see that we can’t just insert a technology into a place and expect change to happen,” he said. “For a thriving solar market to grow, we have to help transform how people think about energy.”

Leading up to the trip, students attended a once-a-week class to learn about solar PV arrays and the roles they would play in the Roatán installation.

Josh Kappel, a senior working towards an integrated bachelor's/master's degree in architectural engineering, was in charge of constructing the racking system for the solar array built in March. 

“It really helped to be in the construction management aspect of architectural engineering because I knew the process of things and thought about the sequence of how this array was actually going to go together,” he said.

“It is powerful to learn about how the solar systems are affecting communities,” Katy Sachs, a senior majoring in architectural engineering, said. “The money they used to spend on electricity is now being used to fix leaks in water systems, buy pipe to connect more homes to water and even fix up schools.”

While in Roatán, the students also had opportunities to learn about other aspects of energy and water systems, including a tour of the new propane combined heat and power plant on the island and the wind farm developed by the Roatán Electric Company. 

They heard from organizations like the Roatán Marine Park and the Blue Harbor Arboretum, both of which are working to improve the water systems on the island and protect the nearby Mesoamerican Reef. Their initiatives include expanding wastewater treatment systems, using hydroponic farms, and educating tourists on how to respect the island’s ecosystems.

To date, Penn State has helped facilitate the construction of eight PV systems in Roatán through its Renew Crew program. Multiple faculty members and student organization contribute to the project each year to help raise funds and plan the projects. While on site, students visit past projects to learn how systems are affecting the communities and scout for potential future projects.

“Roatán is a beautiful and powerful living lab to study food, energy and water systems,” said Riley. “As our partnerships on the island grow, I hope we are able to develop deeper and broader forms of collaboration.” 

The Renew Crew program was launched in 2009 with a grant from the ELECTRI International Foundation. It is a collaborative effort of academic programs and student organizations focused on the deployment of solar PV systems in developing communities. Beginning with a small solar installation on a school in Roatán, the initiative has evolved into a strategic initiative targeting community water wells. A part of this evolution has been the shift from project-focused to a long-term effort to create systemic change on the island of Roatán and contribute to the transformation of energy systems in island communities.

  • Students in Roatan with miniature solar water pumping system

    Penn State students show children at a local school in Roatán how to operate the miniature solar water pumping system.

    IMAGE: Penn State
  • People work to install a solar panel in Roatán

    Penn State students and faculty work to install a solar panel in one of two solar energy systems in Roatán.

    IMAGE: Penn State
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Last Updated July 30, 2018