Sowing the Seeds of Electricity

Electric Outlet

By John Martins

When a group of Widener undergraduate engineering students started designing a power grid for a village nestled in the Panamanian jungle, the one thing they didn't factor in was how one of the world's most amazing feats of engineering—the nearby Panama Canal—would affect their project.

Before crews began work to widen the canal during the summer of 2011, the Gatun River was dammed 2.5 miles downstream from the tiny Embera-Wounaan settlement of Ella Drua, where the Widener chapter of Engineers Without Borders had been working. As the wet season progressed and torrents of rain fell, the normally calm river swelled by several feet and caused a major flood. "It was pretty intense," said civil engineering major Ashley Nilsen '12, vice president of the chapter. "We were a bit nervous."

Although village residents tried to convince the students that the flood was a fluke attributable to the temporary dam downstream, Nilsen said she and other Widener engineers nonetheless raised the level of the power lines on the poles they will install. "You can never be too sure," she added.
Engineering students in Panama

It's been almost four years since the Widener team first began work on the Ella Drua project, which will bring solar-powered electricity to the community of 22 buildings located about 90 minutes northwest of Panama City and accessible only by boat. The project, known on campus as Project SEED (Solar Energy for Ella Drua), began in 2008 when Widener alumna Alyssa Eagan '05—who was living in the village on a Peace Corps assignment—connected with the new engineering group. Since then, Widener students and faculty have traveled to Ella Drua on several assessment trips to interview residents, take measurements, and scout for supplies.

Residents of the village, most of whom rely on income generated by the sale of their artisanal craftwork, indicated that their greatest need was for nighttime illumination. Many also expressed a desire for a communal laundry facility—clothes are currently washed in the Gatun River—a computer workstation, and a cell-phone and charging unit.

The students' initial design called for a solar energy system large enough to provide 100 watts of power for 15 hours of continuous use, with enough storage capacity to maintain that level of service for three cloudy days when solar power cannot be generated.

However, due to costs, students had to scale back the capacity to 100 watts for five hours of continuous use, with enough storage to keep the lights on for only two days.

Despite the limited capacity, Nilsen said the group is intent on building a power system that can grow easily with the community. "We're designing a system that's able to be expanded," she said. "Solar panels or batteries aren't that hard to add to the system. It's the other components, the charge controller and the inverter, that are much more difficult to replace."

While the project has progressed relatively smoothly thus far, Nilsen said the group was forced to scale back its original power plant design due to fundraising shortfalls. The group in December put finishing touches on the first draft of a massive 10-part project report to be submitted to the national Engineers Without Borders organization. The report, which Nilsen said includes most project material from travel histories to facility designs, must be approved before the students can begin building. Once the national organization reviews the Widener students' report, the group plans to make two trips this spring to procure supplies, build the system, and train villagers on maintenance.

Andrew Nodolski, senior lab technician in the School of Engineering and the group's advisor, said he is confident the Widener team will follow through on their commitment to villagers. "They're very hard-working students," Nodolski said. "It's an awful lot of additional dedication necessary to complete this. It's way over and above what the average student would get involved in."

 

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