Making and Installing Solar Panels

Rough winds and rain gusted through the truck as we bumped through the hills of Maasai land. After blessing the rains down in Africa with the help of Toto, we were greeted by Debs and her and Thiemo’s German Shepherds Turbo, Sally, and Stella. Throughout the day, zebras and livestock would freely stroll and graze about their property. After a day of settling into the Castle and soaking in the view of Rift Valley sunset, Thiemo gave us a crash course on energy, electricity, and solar power.

The next steps were calculating the power consumption of our own homes and the kind of solar systems that we would require, along with jumping down into Thiemo’s workshop to assemble as much of the systems as we could offsite. We split up to saw timber, mitre metal beams, drill together solar panel mounts and boxes, and wire up charge controllers. I thoroughly enjoyed returning to the familiar shop setting, one that I had grown accustomed to in high school. Beeping out the connection between the 12 volt charging plug and its wires to connect it to our system, I felt at home, efficient, and capable of creating something important and impactful.

However, this feeling could not even come close to rivaling the satisfaction of going to people’s homes and installing the solar systems in the following days (after I spent an evening getting lost on a run in the hills and pastures around the Castle. Sorry again Erin for making you worry and nearly come looking for me). Our first installation was at the home of the Odung’o family, more commonly known as “John’s family” (John being the elder man of the house). Dividing and conquering, Erin and Teller wired up the lights and switches, Manu and Ellie bolted the solar panel onto the roof, and Grace, Tev, and I measured out the wire runs inside the house. Juliana, Mel, and Kev also helped us out even though they weren’t in our group by digging a trench for a wire to run from the main house to the kitchen.

It was a long day in the heat; our hands were scraped, cut, and blistered from screwing light bulbs and crimps to connect wires (some of which took many tries to make multiple wire junctions) and stripping apart long cables. Our arms and necks were sore from climbing and reaching up to the ceiling for so long. At one point, four of us crowded around holding up a ladder in the middle of the room for Tevis to reach the light. Our eyes were dusted from hammering mounting clips and drilling into the walls and high vaulted roofing; however, we also had entertainment from the many kids and adults, dogs (including a tiny, adorable puppy), sheep, chickens, and cows hanging out around the house and watching. Finally, we were ready to test our system. I almost dreaded the moment that we connected the battery to the system, remembering the many hours of painstaking failure and troubleshooting in my own high school electrical projects. As I wrenched in the final wire, I heard the group behind me yell as the controller lit up along with all the house lights, the porch light, and the phone charger! The kitchen light required a quick connection fix, but soon after we hooked up the solar panel and celebrated with pictures, tea, and bracelets from our hosts. I couldn’t help smiling triumphantly seeing the lit home for the first time and Jackson, a member of our host family, charging his cell phone. I didn’t realize till we got back to the Castle that evening I had been so captivated with finishing the system that I forgot to eat lunch.

Our second installation was at a similar home with very different hosts; only one woman and her child kept us company. Luckily, we were able to suspend the wire to the kitchen rather than dig a trench this time, and the low roof made setting up lights easy. However, the boarded roof also meant that Ellie and Tevis had to climb and crawl around between the plywood ceiling and metal roofing to connect the wires from above. Since we were used to our roles, we were very efficient putting everything together and getting the system up and running quickly. After another small hiccup with the outdoor light (and some good help from Simon, who works for Debs and Thiemo), we had our second solar system up and running!

What struck me most about our project work was just how simple the installation was. Most of the difficult electronics and logic were taken care of by the charge controller, leaving no hard electrical work to be done besides running wires and making all the proper connections. I personally also found something new that I’ve been longingly searching for: a way to apply my skills and passion for electronics and engineering to a meaningful, practical cause. All of the work I have done in high school was for generally miscellaneous projects that were never heavily used or purposed. Here in the mountainous, rural Maasai land of Kenya, our hard work put together a system to provide electricity to people who have never had lights at night, who have children who need to study to stay in school at night without getting burned from kerosene, and who use cell phones to manage their finances and get all of their information without a place to charge them within a three hour drive. I personally connected with our project work here more than anywhere else so far in Africa, and quite likely in the world. As I look back at my pursuit of electrical engineering in high school and forward into college, the Napenda Solar initiative has answered the ever present question which I’m sure lingers in many young students’ minds: what is it all for?