School Powers Up
Solar Power Provides Tangible Benefits while Fostering Good-Will and Partnerships

April 1st, 2009
by Jay Chub

[private]

Students install solar panels on Sandy Bay Alternative School's roof.

Students install solar panels on Sandy Bay Alternative School's roof.

Local residents recently witnessed a bee hive of activity as a 2.5 kW grid-tied solar system, likely to be first in Honduras, was installed and commissioned at the Sandy Bay Alternative School. This project, a collaborative effort between the Association of Honduran Electrical Contractors (ACEH), engineering students from Penn State University (PSU), and the National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA), demonstrates the potential for a motivated private sector to play a leadership roll in community development.

The Project

The seed for this project was planted during the 2008 El Salvador meeting of NECA’s ELECTRI-International members. A brief conversation between PSU’s Dr. David Riley and ACEH president Charles George led to further discussions and the ultimate fruition of the project. “Last October, some of us attended the NECA convention in Chicago and that’s where members of the Penn State student chapter presented their project proposal”, explains ACEH member Wally Connor. Completion of this project and commissioning of the system was timed to coincide with NECA’s annual “Cross Border” conference held at Infinity Bay.

Fifteen thousand dollars for materials was granted to the student chapter by the US based NECA, and over 500 hours of labor and $2,000 of materials was donated by the Roatan based ACEH members to upgrade wiring in the school building. Eddy Zelaya, field supervisor for Vegas Electric, coordinated the activities of the Penn State students and ACEH members involved in the project. According to George, a US certified solar system installer who provided the design and equipment specifications, Vegas Electric has been involved in renewable energy projects on Roatan since 1993.

The school expects to offset as much as 75% of their yearly energy costs. “With power costs so high in Roatan, we’ve been spending money on electricity bills that will now be going to more teachers and books,” says Miriam Hanson, school director. Hanson says the project will be used to teach the practical value of solar power in addition to saving dollars for the school. “The Penn State students also came into the school and did some sessions about fossil fuels. With all the kids knowing that our lights are now powered by the sun, this really teaches our kids to recognize and care for the resources we have.”

“Now we’re alternative not only in our education philosophy but in energy too. We always try to promote alternative solutions to global problems and this project teaches kids about building international partnerships and inspires a spirit of inquiry.”

The Electricians

In 2004, a group of local electricians invited representatives of NECA’s Mexican chapter to Roatan to share their experience in meeting the demands of the rapidly growing market in Mexico. With backing and support from the Mexican group and guidance from NECA’s international office, ACEH was founded and chartered as a NECA chapter in 2006. Since then, the group has committed to an ambitious agenda of activities including a formal training program, travel to international conferences, and local volunteer projects.

“We do projects like this one to educate ourselves, promote our skills to developers, and to benefit the community”, says Connor. “Our first project involved a wiring upgrade for an orphanage in La Ceiba after an electrical fire killed a child.” The group then re-wired the day care center in Coxen Hole, and the French Harbour public health clinic in addition to helping with Clinica Esperanza in Sandy Bay,

“Most of the electrical work that has been done on the island was done by unqualified people lacking knowledge and the right equipment”, says Connor. “But through our relationship with NECA we’re now being trained to work to internationally recognized standards. Connor says that developers often underestimate the skills of local contractors when planning projects. “We hope to show them what we’re capable of,” he says.

The University

“We’re amped up about this!” says professor David Riley of Pennsylvania State University. Riley brought his group of engineering students to Roatan for the week to participate in the preparation and installation of the solar system equipment. He agrees with Connor about the professionalism of these local contractors. “I’m impressed; this is no hodge-podge installation,” he says.

According to Riley, adequate preparation and locally available support for the installation is the key to its success. “Most projects don’t prepare well. They rush in, build things and leave. With ACEH providing on going support, the project can stay local”. Thorough knowledge of local conditions emerges as a key theme in Riley’s view. “For example, Vegas Electric’s experience working on Roatan convinced us that we needed marine grade mountings. Without that kind of knowledge the installation just wouldn’t hold up.”

Professor Riley says the project is great for his students. “As teachers we spend so much time trying to get students excited. Coming to Roatan excited them, it was so popular that we had to turn people away”. The students each paid over $2,000 for travel and expenses and were treated to daily tours of the island with ACEH members. “It’s a great project for students to learn from, it helps them connect to sustainable industries of the future” says Riley.

The Conference

Over 30 local and international electrical contractors gathered at Infinity Bay in early March for the annual “Cross-Border Meeting” sponsored by NECA’s ELECTRI-International foundation. Three full days of meetings and field trips were scheduled to share information, discuss future activities, and glean experience from the Sandy Bay Solar project. Charles George of Vegas Electric and ACEH says the conference is a powerful tool for developing the local industry. “Twelve local contractors attended the activities and they had a chance to exchange ideas with some of the most successful electrical contractors in the US. The relationships that we develop here will provide us guidance, mentoring, and a vision for improving our skills and the services we offer our customers.”

Orvil Anthony of San Antonio, Texas manages a division of Fisk Electric, one of the top ten US electrical contracting firms. He first attended a cross border conference five years ago and since then has made exchange with Central American countries part of his company’s business model. “We take the best from what we see and apply it to our business; then we help address any shortfalls we find in local businesses. Our company now exchanges project managers between Guadalajara and our home offices. There’s friendship, learning, we even refer customers across borders”.

If Anthony is any barometer, Roatan can expect more projects benefiting the community in the future. “This is an exciting time. It’s our largest cross border meeting so far, and the school is the first tangible project to come out of them. We’re hoping for 4 or 5 projects like this every year”. [/private]

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