Project brings solar energy to country where 95% of schools do not have reliable electricity
IIT student Simon Brauer works with Janice, a Haitian girl who took an immediate interest in laptop computers. Brauer was part of a project to place solar charging stations in the country — which has little reliable energy — to power up laptop batteries.
When one works in Haiti, one must expect the unexpected, a group of volunteers there recently discovered.
For months, students in an interdisciplinary class at the Illinois Institute of Technology and their teacher, assistant professor Laura Hosman, worked on a plan to provide solar power for Haitian schoolchildren, who have no way to reliably charge batteries for their laptop computers.
Hosman raised $25,000 for the group to travel to Haiti to set up solar panels and charging equipment at two schools. A week before the trip, one of the school principals said he didn’t want his school to participate.
But in the end, everything worked out, Hosman said. The group had just enough time and money to get 500 laptops up and running at one school, in Lascahobas.
With technical assistance from Bruce Baikie, president and CEO of Green Wifi, a California nonprofit that provides solar-powered wireless Internet to developing countries, the class is making Haiti a test case for providing power for laptops worldwide.
The need for solar power is great in Haiti. Ninety-five percent of schools there don’t have a reliable source of electricity, said Hosman, whose class is called Developing Technology to Transform Education Throughout Haiti.
Surprisingly, many students do have laptop computers. In 2008, the Haitian government received a donation of 10,000 laptops, part of the One Laptop Per Child program. An international nonprofit group relied on donors to pay $399 for two low-powered laptops, then donate one or both to schoolchildren in developing countries.
Some of the laptops were distributed in Haiti in 2009, and young people began using them right away. But the earthquake in January 2010 destroyed much of the country’s power grid, leaving laptops in closets, as even larger cities have only sporadic access to electrical power.
“But they have plenty of sun in Haiti,” Hosman said.
To harness that power, Baikie’s design connects inexpensive solar panels to batteries and a charge controller. The result is a direct-current charge for laptop batteries.
“This is what engineers call an elegant solution,” Hosman said. It happens that laptops and other personal electronic devices use direct current, commonly called DC, not the alternating current, or AC, that powers our homes and businesses.
“(Thomas) Edison was a big fan of DC, but, given the cost of a long-distance power grid, AC was a better solution,” Baikie said. “For localized solutions, however, DC is more effective.”
He said he expects the use of solar and wind power to give new life to the use of direct current for certain applications.
“To keep the system cost-affordable and to prevent energy diversion (such as using the chargers to power air conditioners or other appliances), our system was designed for DC only. Since laptops run on DC, why convert from DC to AC then back to DC?” Baikie said.
That process not only costs more, but wastes electricity.
Once installed, the solar charging systems can last 15 to 20 years, with little maintenance, Baikie said.
Mario Berrones, an architectural engineering student at IIT, said the Haiti project gave him firsthand experience building useful technology into an existing structure.
“The project tested one’s creativity,” he said.
While it wasn’t difficult to put up solar panels, a lack of available materials to do wiring was challenging, said Dhara Shah, a biomedical engineering student.
Shah had been to Haiti three times before, to conduct site assessments, but wiring the school for charging laptops was her first engineering project there. She said it took several design changes to get it right.
Working on-site was especially rewarding, Shah said. “I definitely felt like I was pushing myself to think not only like an engineer, but like a social scientist.”
All the while, students were eagerly waiting to charge their laptops.
Simon Brauer, who is studying psychology and sociology, recalled a little girl named Janice, who “was constantly around us, always wanting to play with a laptop. She was not a student. She was the daughter of one of the cooks who provided meals for us.”‘
Brauer said he hopes that laptop donation programs can be expanded to reach more children like Janice.
Fabrice Urrizalqui added another dimension to the group. A third-grade French teacher from California, he collected boxes of books to start a library at the school. He and Regine Antenor, an IIT architectural student, also worked on a lesson plan to teach the students about solar power.
While older Haitian children can speak French, younger kids speak Creole, so Antenor, a native of Haiti, often served as a translator.
“Our project was successful, and there are plans to expand the education aspect, based on feedback we have received from Haitian teachers,” Antenor said.
Antenor said the team enjoyed all aspects of the weeklong trip. “The food was delicious, and for me, it was a special delight to enjoy meals I have not had since I left my home in Haiti.”
Hosman and her class are gearing up for another trip to Haiti at the end of the year.
They have already made good progress with fundraising, she said. Many people have contributed through the nonprofit group GlobalGiving.org. A professional engineers group also has approved a $10,000 grant for more solar laptop charging in Haiti.
The IIT students will continue to partner with students at the State University of Haiti to work on educational content for the laptops.