Homes in Benin, Africa electrified for the first time
THE SANTA CLARA
February 4, 2016
The outlook for 133 people living in rural Africa is a little bit brighter because of two Santa Clara engineering students. For their senior design project, Jacob Leatherberry and Nico Metais designed and installed a solar microgrid in Alafiarou, a remote village in the West African nation of Benin. Bringing electricity to the town for the first time, 13 buildings are now outfitted with lightbulbs and cell phone charging stations. According to Leatherberry, this type of project was long overdue.
“The last promise was made like 10 years ago and it still hadn’t arrived,” he said. “So we stepped in with our own grid and built this thing to give them power.”
Both electrical engineering majors, Leatherberry and Metais began working on the project in September. Their centralized solar microgrid, which is a scaled down version of the typical commercial grid, relies solely on sunlight as opposed to hydroelectric, coal or petroleum like much of the United States’ grid. After they spent the last quarter planning, designing and prototyping, the last piece of the puzzle was finding a place to install it. As it turned out, Fr. James Reites, S.J. an associate professor of both religious studies and engineering, already had a place in mind.
Reites, who was introduced to the students through engineering professor Shoba Krishnan, has a background in engineering and has traveled with students to places such as Ghana and Rwanda on similar projects. He came up with the idea to implement the grid in Benin largely in part to Fr. Bossou, S.J., a graduate student in the school of engineering who is from a neighboring city in Benin. Together, the four of them were sponsored by both the School of Engineering and the Miller Center for social entrepreneurship to take a 10-day trip in December to install the grid.
“It was a very exciting experience because being there before, it’s another experience,” Bossou said. “Coming to Santa Clara and also getting certain things from here, understanding Silicon Valley and all these innovations, and then going back with that is another experience. It’s like a mixture of two cultures within me.”
With travel and the time it took to purchase supplies in the nearby city of Cotonou, the group had just five days to build and install the microgrid. The team began by mapping the area before digging trenches and setting up initial wiring. Eliciting help from the villagers, they worked long days to wire each house. They also built an electrical room to store the batteries and charge controller, a task that was possible with the help of a local carpenter and welder.
“We figured that by them helping us out building it, that they would appreciate it as their own and I think that’s exactly what happened,” Leatherberry said.
Deciding where to install the microgrid was one of the key challenges they faced upon their arrival.The preliminary plan was to power 10 houses, but as Metais and Leatherberry explained, the term “house” in the villagers’ culture translated to an entire family, which can consist of upwards of 150 people. After some discussion with the village elders, two families housed in large clusters of six and seven buildings respectively received power.
Metais and Leatherberry wanted to create a system that would be both affordable and self-sustaining. By hiring a local electrician to do upkeep and collect payments from the families receiving electricity, they created a system that could facilitate the future enlargement of the grid. Parfait, the electrician who works for a group of brothers up the road, deposits the payments into a bank account each month, which they hope will one day fund the expansion of the grid.
“The important thing that we made sure we told the villagers before we left is that if a family is not able to pay for their electricity that month, it’s important for the village to help that family because by helping that family and by paying the bill, they’re bringing [in] money and that money will be used later on for the future development of the grid,” Metais said.
Since returning from their trip, the two have been programming a computer to control the power depending on whether or not the families make their payments. This would relieve some of Parfait’s duties as well as hold the families accountable. Metais said that by taking into account the “pay as you go,” model that most villages follow for their services and needs, this type of system would work well.
Reflecting on the trip and the project, Reites said he was impressed by not only the students’ talent as engineers, but also their ability to adapt their project to the changing needs and circumstances they encountered.
“As a faculty advisor, I’m very proud of them and what they accomplished and their resiliency and the hard work–long, long hard work with very little sleep,” Reites said. “They’re going to be great engineers.”
Contact Jenni Sigl at firstname.lastname@example.org or call (408) 554-4852.