Students design hybrid energy system for remote village

By Lesia Winiarskyj

Back row: David Mangus (left) and Peter Werth listen in as students explain the rationale behind their proposed hybrid energy system.

Armed with anemometers, volt meters, calculators, and Google Maps, a small group of Hartford teens is working furiously to power a school in Nepal, in one of the highest-altitude villages on Earth. Their mission is to procure, assemble, test, and deliver an alternative energy system that lights and heats three classrooms and charges six laptops: and to have it up and running by summer's end.

The teens are all students at Hartford Public High School's Academy of Engineering and Green Technology (AoEGT). CBIA's Education Foundation, which was instrumental in AoEGT's design and development, serves on the school's advisory board and is responsible for getting information out to the press and public about this unique project and the importance of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education.

High Hopes

Saldang, in Nepal's Dolpa region, is a remote, treeless village surrounded by Himalayan mountain chains and accessible only by yak. Powering the school presents a number of challenges, says David Mangus, a science teacher at AoEGT. Mangus has been working with 14 AoEGT students on the project, guiding their research.

"First," he says, "there is the unique climate and environment. At nearly 13,000 feet, Saldang has extreme wind and weather conditions." In the winter, heavy snows isolate the region from the rest of Nepal. There is only one pass into and out of the village, and from October until spring, it is closed because of snow, making the village inaccessible.

Mangus's students are working hard: and fast: to get an effective, efficient power system set up in time; their goal is to have all components ordered, modified to suit the location, test-assembled, and ready to ship by Aug. 2. There is also the matter of uneven terrain in Saldang, which poses a challenge for transporting large parts into the region and finding: or creating: a level area for the base of the wind turbine.

"The group I'm working with has spent months investigating the feasibility of different types of off-grid energy sources," says Mangus. "They've had to consider everything from cost to transportation, infrastructure challenges and logistics, and wildlife impact. They've done wind speed and air mass calculations and researched the local culture as well, to ensure a good fit with the needs and values of the community. These young men and women have looked carefully at all the available designs and technologies and how they could be customized for this region."

Knowledge Is Power

Akeem Brown shows a student-built model of the vertical wind turbine and solar panels being installed at a school in Nepal. The model demonstrates the impact of wind turbulence that would occur if the turbine is installed too close to the school building.

The Saldang project was the brainchild of Peter Werth, of the Werth Family Foundation, who came upon the Sherlri Drukda Lower Secondary School in his travels last year.

"I was in upper Dolpa, near the Tibetan border, doing foundation work for wildlife habitat preservation," says Werth. "It took six days by foot to get to an area with a school that had 80 students, one teacher, and no electricity. These were bright, articulate kids with a strong desire to learn, and I wanted to help them."

While it would have been easier to simply purchase the necessary equipment to power the school, Werth saw an opportunity to engage students from his own corner of the world. The Connecticut-based Werth Foundation awarded a grant to the Connecticut Pre-Engineering Program (CPEP) to create a rich, meaningful educational experience for young people who are underrepresented in STEM. The Saldang project is that experience.

"I had seen what CPEP did with young people on other projects," said Werth, "and I was confident that these students could take some existing technology and make it work in extreme conditions in Nepal. That was the charge sheet, and I knew they would show some real Yankee ingenuity and deliver."

For Akeem Brown, one of the students working on the project, the mission hits home.

"I grew up in Jamaica," he explains, "and my family didn't always have electricity. If I have an opportunity to help someone else in a similar situation, I'll do it."

"Hands-on challenges that illustrate the real-world meaning and value of STEM concepts are our specialty," says CPEP CEO Bruce Dixon. "And there is no better partner for an effort like this than CBIA's Education Foundation. They share our goals when it comes to STEM education, and they know how to build business-education partnerships that work."

CBIA's Education Foundation facilitates work among the project's partners (including United Technologies Corp., the corporate sponsor of AoEGT), making sure business and academic goals are integrated and that the school's faculty, administrators, and students have what they need to make the project work smoothly.

"We are thrilled to serve in that role and support the public-private partnership that makes the Nepal initiative possible," says Education Foundation Executive Director Judy Resnick. "We are also pleased to provide communications support for the project, ensuring that the work of these energetic students and the significance of STEM education get the publicity and recognition they deserve."

Lasting Impact

After months of research, Mangus's students decided on a hybrid system that harnesses wind and solar power. "It's a custom, one-of-a-kind system," says student project manager Isiah Cabrera.

Jazzmin Mitchell is proud of the work her group has done. "How many times do you have an opportunity at school to change a whole community: to make that kind of a difference? I'm leaving my footprint."

Mangus and his students have ordered a vertical axis wind turbine, solar panels, charge controller, batteries, and tower. Over the summer: thanks to funding CPEP has received from the Werth Family Foundation: eight of the students will continue their work on the Saldang project, making necessary alterations to the components they've ordered.

"They will be modifying the storage cabinet and control panel and doing a lot of other design and electrical work," says Mangus. One of his students, a native of Nepal, will also be tasked with translating installation and operating instructions.

The team plans to ship the equipment to the World Wildlife Fund's facilities in Kathmandu. From there, the equipment will be airlifted to Saldang.

"This kind of project," says Dixon, "has the potential for lasting impact: both on the students at Hartford's academy who are seeing their research, critical thinking, and calculations put to the test and put to work, and on those in Nepal, who will reap the benefits of a new energy source right in their school. It's transformational."

Lesia Winiarskyj is a writer and editor at CBIA. She can be reached at lesia.winiarskyj@cbia.com.