UC Berkeley students provide solar energy to Ugandans

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Fo/Creative Commons

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What are you doing this summer? Taking a class online? Interning from 9 to 5? Traveling a little? This summer, the California-Renewable and Adaptive Energy, or CAL-RAE, team will be helping with the construction of a solar microgrid system in Uganda.

UC Berkeley students Jalel Sager, Jonathan Lee and Austin Cappon will install the first stage of the microgrid in Kitobo, a fishing island in Lake Victoria, Uganda. The core members staying in Berkeley will continue to work on research and fundraising efforts.

The club has benefited from the help of campus professor Daniel Kammen, who, according to Cappon, has been instrumental with his “blend of global insight and encouragement of practical, local-scale development engineering approaches.”

You might be thinking, “What is a solar microgrid system? Why does Uganda need one? Why do I need to know about this now, in the middle of the summer?” To answer these questions, we at the Clog asked Cappon, Kammen and Krina Huang to discuss, in an email, CAL-RAE and its current microgrid project in the Lake Victoria community.

The Daily Clog: Why did you decide to start your project in Uganda? Are there other places that are more in need of energy in the world?

Austin Cappon: In 2013, we won a (United Nations) SEED (Initiative) Award (under our former name, SEA-RAE). One of the fellow SEED Award winners based in Kampala, Uganda, learned of the microgrid system design we were working on at the time and introduced to the Ssese Islands in Lake Victoria.

The communities in the Lake Victoria region are both deserving and eager for modern energy. In our pilot community for the region, residents will use the new electricity to power homes, health clinics, and new business ventures.

DC: What is a microgrid system?

AC: A microgrid is a small-scale electricity system that uses distributed resources to produce power. In our case, this resource is solar power. Solar power is harvested on top of “Solar Trees” installed throughout the community, that power is then routed back to a battery bank for storage. This storage allows for uninterrupted access to electricity, even after dark. Microgrids allow communities to reduce reliance on external resources like diesel and kerosene that are often difficult and expensive to source in remote locations.

DC: Is this solar energy considered to be clean energy? How so?

AC: Our system harvests renewable energy from the sun, using solar panels. The system will replace fossil fuel-burning diesel generators and kerosene lamps. Lake Victoria has many small islands that don’t have access to conventional electricity grid services. They are forced to pay expensive rates for poor quality electricity, if they want power. The abundance of sun, and eagerness for modern electricity makes the region ripe for development of renewable power systems.

DC: How does the new power grid affect the economy?

AC: The new microgrid will open doors for community businesses to use new machines that have until now not been available. These are devices like pumps and refrigerators that would overtax the weak diesel generators the community uses currently. Generally, the system will translate to substantial cost savings for users of the electric grid, that currently pay about six times the average California rate per unit of energy. The microgrid will likely reduce business for the vendors of kerosene and diesel fuel.

Want to get involved? Contact Huang, one of the undergraduate members of the group. After joining CAL-RAE, you’ll have the opportunity to choose to be a part of one of the three departments of CAL-RAE: technical, social media and economic analysis.

For additional information, visit the CAL-RAE Facebook page or send Cappon an email in order to be added to the Listserv.

Image source: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

Contact Daniella Wenger at [email protected].