An enterprising group of engineering students from Cal Poly Humboldt travelled to India to install a solar array at the home of a local electronics store owner. This is the story of their international solar exchange.
Students in the environmental resources engineering department at Cal Poly Humboldt in Arcata, California are a hands-on bunch. They’ve designed a solar-powered box fan air filter that will filter smoky air even when electrical power is out (winner of the Spring 2022 Solar 3D Design competition by SolidProfessor).
The university’s solar projects were built for the foundation behind Appropedia, a Wiki-like open-edit source for sustainability and technologies from rainwater harvesting to “living roofs.”
In 2018, the northern California students traveled to northern India, and installed a rooftop solar array for a homeowner in Baraut, a small city about 40 miles north of New Delhi. The group assembling one of that city’s first solar projects was led by Cal Poly engineering instructor Lonny Grafman, founder of Appropedia and co-author of To Catch the Sun (a book on how to design and build solar projects with shopping lists, instructions and case studies of community solar projects worldwie), and Dr. Meenal Rana, a Cal Poly associate professor.
An international solar exchange
The seven American students joined eight Indian students from New Delhi’s Lady Irwin College, a women’s college in the University of Delhi, hosted by Environment & Social Research Organization, a Baraut nonprofit, that also coordinated their work in nearby villages, in the program Dr. Rana created in India that brings together partnerships between universities, organizations, and communities. (The Delhi college’s most well-known graduate in the US is the mother of Vice President Kamala Harris, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, a biomedical scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in Berkeley, California, who died in 2009.)
The group assembled a 576W eight-panel solar array on the roof of the home of a local electronics store owner and ESRO member, RK Singh, who was building Baraut’s third solar system, but this time at his own home.
“Our students – all women except for one male student – were from some of the most progressive and liberal places in their respective countries, northern California and India’s capital and third-biggest city. But Baraut, and even more so the nearby villages in Uttar Pradesh state, are more traditional, and traditional gender dynamics are still very strong and upheld in these locations,” says Grafman. “We all had a lot to learn, and all our students needed to adapt to the environment.” With all design projects, the very first step is empathy-building, and he explained how his group went about it.
Understanding the local community
“Our students’ job as travelers, guests, and designers was to observe and understand people’s needs,” he explains. Energy, water and waste management were identified as major problems in interviews with community members. His students worked together to create design-focused questions, such as, “Describe a time that you had a problem and were able to solve it“ and “Describe a day you had this week.” While such open-ended questions are hard to quantify, and are not “science.” they are “much more telling of what your audience wants.”
For example, a village girl tersely described a pressing local problem, which translated to: “We do not have regular electricity supply. When the power cuts, I am sometimes unable to complete my homework for class. For this I get punishment and not allowed to sit in the class.” Grafman notes, “Such a story helps clarify the problem and start to figure out a solution (e.g., very small solar lighting for homework).”
Before the students arrived, community members were given more “scientific” questions, such as, “On a scale of 1 to 5, how important is energy (or trash)?” by the Center for Environment Communication, a local group. Such questions, while great for graphs, are not that helpful to actually gain insight into the environmental problems at hand, he explains.
Grafman brought his favorite solar tools to India, including some multimeters to measure electrical voltage, current and resistance. “I try not to bring supplies, as sourcing them more locally brings more long-term success to the project. But I couldn’t resist also bringing a few small, efficient solar panels and my favorite robust, waterproof USB chargers that I designed for protests in North Dakota.” Grafman designed the USB chargers for protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline, which opponents believed would pollute local water and violate Native American burial grounds and historic sites. In 2022, in a major victory for environmentalists and the Standing Rock tribe, the US Supreme Court rejected an appeal from the pipeline operator to avoid an environmental review.
Lost in translation moments
Some amusing lost-in-translation moments occurred during the project. Singh demanded one unique aspect when the students installed his solar array: A metal grill had to be placed above all the solar panels. This, of course, would reduce the efficiency, and thus the power output, of the panels. Grafman thought he was told the metal grill was because monkeys threw rocks at the solar panels.
“I, of course, accepted his reasoning as he has had years of experience with both solar power monkeys. I was hoping to eventually witness this behavior myself, and often wondered why the monkeys threw the rocks.” He blithely assumed perhaps it was due to the bright reflection, similar to why some birds attack windows. Wrong. He had misunderstood, thanks to language differences. The grill was to guard against rocks that people tossed at the monkeys, to prevent them from coming into their homes and stealing their property.
“Often, the monkeys are up high when they are plotting their pilfering. The solar panels are also high up on the roof hidden from view, but right in the path of the rock when it misses the larcenous monkey…which it almost always does,” Grafman explains. “So the grill is an interesting story in cultural and environmental differences, and also a telling example of the tradeoffs between criteria like cost, durability and power input. The roughly 10% reduction in power is almost certainly worth the many extra years of durability. The math can tell you for sure.”
A few glitches ensued. The group assumed all the seemingly matching government-approved made-in-India panels were indeed, but they weren’t, says Grafman. The positive and negative terminals were switched on some of the panels. “Luckily, we didn’t break anything, and we tested before finalizing the install. With the multimeter, we were able to determine the correct polarity of each of the panels and rewire them for a successful install.”