The boldness to take on big challenges is nothing new at Lightyear – dreaming big is in our DNA. Occasionally, though, we get carried away and try something so ambitious it frightens us a little. And just sometimes it works.
A team of Lightyear volunteers – Craig, Marthe, Rosina, and myself (Svet) recently carried out a pilot for a DIY solar panel project in Ghana.
We arrived at AIMS Ghana with high aspirations for our solar project: to enhance hands-on science training, to develop local technical expertise, to provide sustainable electricity to communities that lack it. Against many odds – in a resource-constrained and a time-pressured environment – the gifted students at AIMS advanced the project beyond all expectations!
Over 4 days a team of Lightyear volunteers worked with the AIMS students to build – pretty much from scratch – two solar power systems, and install them at the nearby primary school in Biriwa. The systems will be operated by the school for the benefit of the local community, and will be overseen by the students and tutors at AIMS.
In the midst of everything that brought the solar workshops into being, two partnerships stand apart. First, of course, our relationship with the recently-established and rapidly-growing AIMS Ghana, who provided us with exceptional support throughout. The workshops would also have been impossible without the help of Demand Energy Equality, a group that runs similar workshops in the UK – they crucially taught us how to build panels so we could pass on the skills, and provided many of the required materials at reduced cost. In fact, Demand Energy Equality have put together an excellent video guide to DIY solar panels, which you should check out if you are interested in doing something similar.
Here is the story of how we got this far, and our emerging vision for the path ahead – of course, the best way to tell it is through pictures.
We kicked off day 1 with a brief discussion of the circuit and semiconductor theory involved, and had a look at an existing solar system. We’re confident that few electronics labs have views quite as stunning as these!
This was followed by a trip to the market in Cape Coast to source some materials. Just in case, we had brought most of the electronics with us from the UK – though glass panes were a tricky one to take on the plane!
Demand Energy Equality whom I mentioned earlier had provided us with the silicone solar cells. We used cells that had been rejected by solar panel manufacturers due to small defects or breakages – these were perfectly suitable for our purposes, and obtainable at very low cost. We cut them in half in order to strike a better balance between panel size and output.
The students quickly picked up the process of soldering tabbing wire to the back of the cells, in order to connect them together in series.
Tabbing wire in place, we arranged the cells on the glass and affixed them using a layer of silicone. At this point, after an extraordinarily successful first day, we were far ahead of our schedule so decided to break up for the day.
We capped off the evening with a stroll down the beach and a drink at a nearby beach resort.
At the start of day 2, the students quickly completed the connections by soldering down the free strips of tabbing wire.
Excited, we soldered the wiring for the negative and positive panel terminals and connected the charging circuit – and there it was – we had a fully operational solar panel and 12V system!
Satisfied that everything worked well, we covered the cells with QSil – transparent silicon for protection from corrosion – and sealed up the panel with a second pane of glass.
The AIMS staff and us, proud of the students’ creation.
However we couldn’t really take the panel anywhere until the local carpenter had made a frame for it. He took the measurements, and while we waited we wondered…
Maybe we could make something simpler and smaller, but nearly as useful?
While we waited for the carpenter to arrive with the frame for the larger panel, we quickly threw together a smaller panel with a very minimal circuit. While the larger panel powers a 12V system, this one has just 9 cells (providing around 3-4V when loaded), together with a voltage boost converter up to 5V, the USB port voltage. It is a USB charging panel with a total material cost of under $10, which can be used to charge most phones as well as many other gadgets such as 3G/WiFi hotspots.
At the end of day 3, the carpenter arrived and mounted the frame he had prepared for the panel. We did expect him in the morning rather than the evening, though his work had been delayed by a power outage – some irony!
And there it was! The following morning the Larwe and Bernard (pictured), together with Getachew and the Lightyear team took the finished, sealed, panels to the Biriwa Methodist Primary School situated across the road from AIMS.
Bernard tests out the solar charging panel together, with the AIMS building visible in the distance.
The Biriwa Primary teachers check the output voltage of the panel.
We spent the morning with the teachers, chatting about how to operate the panels – for charging phones and laptops – as well as for providing lighting using an LED light we had obtained from a market stall in Cape Coast and quickly wired up the previous night. We chatted to them about what their needs and desires are with respect to solar power, so we can begin to think about the next iteration of the system while the school test-drives this one. The teachers took many photos and notes, and were very engaged – it was clear that they understood our purpose, and were very willing to work with us to help develop the system into something that is as useful as could be.
From left to right: Svet, Benedicta, Nana, Rosina, Craig, Prince, Victoria, and Marthe.
And finally, after a job-well-done, it was time for the Lightyear team to wish the wonderful AIMS Ghana staff a temporary ‘goodbye’ – because that was certainly not the end of our joint adventure into DIY solar power!
We were all delighted with the progress, and are keen to develop this pilot into something much larger – something that touches many more lives. There is certainly a lot of work ahead of us, and we are already setting our sights on the big questions that we have to answer in the coming weeks and months, before our next visit to Ghana.
Our vision is to scale this programme across other educational institutions, where students will be able to create and deploy their own DIY panels using materials mostly sourced in Ghana. This would both develop the students’ skills and technical expertise, while at the same time providing affordable power to communities.
We need to work on the design of the systems, on developing the right partnerships, and on securing financial support – we already have plenty of food for thought on all of these fronts. In terms of the design, for example, one of the challenges we are coming across is the local availability of some of the necessary components, such as batteries and electrical circuits. While we are confident that suitable substitutes for most of these will be available locally, we are also considering alternative designs that do not include some of the pricier circuit components.
We are incredibly excited about what lies ahead, and look forward to turning it all into reality! For more information on this project, or to discuss how you could contribute, please do not hesitate to get in touch with email@example.com.
Finally, we are very grateful for the generous financial support provided to us by Exception UK and by the Waterloo Foundation.