WILSONVILLE, OR - On August 19, Oregon Institute of Technology (Oregon Tech) students will join their professor, Dr. Slobodan Petrovic, in Tanzania, where they will install solar energy systems for schools and hospitals. This adventure of learning and humanitarian outreach is part of Oregon Tech’s BS in Renewable Energy Engineering (BSREE) degree program, the only ABET-accredited energy engineering program in North America.
Like much of the region, 70 to 80 percent of Tanzania is without electricity. After volunteering there in 2009, Dr. Petrovic teamed up with students from Oregon Tech’s Department of Electrical Engineering & Renewable Energy (EERE) in Portland to help build a sustainable new model for changing the energy outlook in Africa, and provide hands-on experience in the design and installation of renewable energy technology.
“What I always say is that we give these people the gift of light and the gift of communication,” Dr. Petrovic says.
Each year since 2010, another batch of 10 students travels to Tanzania to continue Oregon Tech’s work there, which provides energy to power lights that allow Tanzanian students to study after dark and medical professionals to perform surgery with adequate illumination. The solar panels also power refrigerators for vaccines, sterilization equipment and charging capabilities for cell phones and computers. The students also will take eight laptops with them this trip to leave with villagers, allowing access to the Internet as connections allow.
This year, the group will spend the first week of the trip revisiting past installation sites, performing maintenance and updates to address the biggest problem of providing solar aid in developing countries – making sure it stays working. The students then will install equipment invented by last year’s seniors in the form of sensors with remote data transfer capabilities to allow them to continue to monitor the solar systems online.
“This is going to be absolutely revolutionary in the world of solar, as well as international development because nobody is doing that,” Petrovic says. The humanitarian work also is made possible by donations from Hillsboro-based SolarWorld, the largest U.S. manufacturer of solar panels. SolarWorld has donated 30 solar modules to the program, and is invested in continuing to help the program grow.
“This is about more than simply installing solar panels; it’s about facilitating access to education, communications, medical services and clean, safe drinking water,” says Gordon Brinser, president of SolarWorld Industries America. “It’s about connecting impoverished communities to the larger world through a simple, renewable technology.”
The initial inspiration for the program came about during Dr. Petrovic’s 2009 trip to Tanzania, when a terrible accident changed his perspective forever. “There was a girl in the dormitory in one of the schools using a candle hidden under her blanket so she could read. She fell asleep, and her blanket caught fire,” Petrovic says. “Thirteen girls died that night. It was totally needless, and it happened because they didn’t have a light bulb. I want to prevent these tragedies.”
In addition to installing solar panels, which will include three hospitals and three schools near the town of Iringa, about 500 km from Tanzania’s biggest city, Dar es Salaam, Dr. Petrovic and his students will build a large solar water pump to provide drinking water for a village of 3,000 people on Lake Nyasa in southern Tanzania.
But the trip isn’t just about bringing new technology to Africa, or advancing the students’ education. Oregon Tech’s delegation bring small tokens to give to the children they meet, often dancing, playing in the fields with them and forging friendships despite the language barrier and initial culture shock. Typically, at the end of an installation project, Oregon Tech students will set up a projector and share movies with the people whose lives they’ve impacted.
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