Solar and tigers and bears oh my!

It’s not everyday you get to help install a solar system…it’s also not every day you get to do it in the jungle with elephants and rhinos passing by…

Earlier this month I took an incredible trip to Nepal with GRID Alternatives where I helped install a 1.2 kW off-grid solar system in the Chitwan National Park.

Often in the clean energy space, unless you are a developer or installer yourself, us computer and desk laborers can feel fairly far removed from the technology and often our knowledge of the technical side of the business can be intangible and learned only from drawings and maintenance reports. I wanted to get my hands dirty and help build a system from start to finish.

I was previously familiar with GRID Alternatives’ volunteer solar installation trips but when I read on their website they did a trip once a year to Nepal and this one had a women’s empowerment and wildlife conservation angle I knew I needed to be a part of it.

Zoe in Nepal with Grid Alternatives The solar system we installed was on the roof of a watchtower in the national park. These towers are used for tourism and anti-poaching efforts and are dispersed throughout the park. Once the towers have electricity, eco-tourists can then stay in the towers while on safari to witness the impressive wildlife. This arrangement allows all  of the revenue to go directly back into the park’s conservation efforts.

Conservation

The local committee in charge of this region of the park has ambitions to have solar installed on all eleven towers in the area, this was the third tower to receive it. The towers create job opportunities for local residents who support its operation and bringing electricity to the towers greatly increases the number of travelers interested in staying, thus driving up funds for local conservation efforts.

And the conservation work this park does is critical. Chitwan, Nepal’s first National Park, is a refuge to the Bengal Tiger and one of the last populations of single-horned Asiatic Rhinoceros, among many other species vulnerable to the threats of poaching and a changing climate.

Elephants near the solar install site, Chitwan National Park, Nepal.

GRID Alternatives partnered with a local clean energy installer, Gham Power who volunteered four of their engineers and technicians to assist in the installation of the system and help direct the GRID volunteers. Over the course of the three day install I was able to help sequence the six 120 lbs batteries, install the conduit throughout the bedrooms and bathrooms to hold the wiring, measure and lay the wiring, install the outlets and light bulb sockets, and saw racking…soup to nuts I saw this small solar system get pieced together and eventually come to life.

Though, as with any construction project, much less one done in the middle of the jungle, the install was not without some hiccups. For example, we realized we only had one hammer, so we had to get creative with what we could use to nail equipment into place. Secondly, the panels were too large to be taken up the narrow staircase to the roof, so we had to create a makeshift pulley system and hoist each of the panels up, one by one. Once the panels reached the roof they had to be lifted up over the rough metal edge that hung out over the tower and, those less afraid of heights than I, helped maneuver each panel over the edge so as to not damage the modules and thus decrease the efficiency of the system. Lastly, you cannot forget the constant threat of aggressive wild elephants charging into the job site. We were told that one elephant the park guards had endearingly named ‘Rinaldo’ had been near by a number of times and even caused us to halt work early one night in order to make the hike back to the other tower where we were staying before dusk in order to avoid Rinaldo’s antics.

Women’s Empowerment

Zoe with solar panel I also had the opportunity to see how even smaller scale solar power was changing the lives of the locals living near the national park. GRID also partnered with the local non-profit Empower Generation which is a solar distribution social enterprise that helps train women to sell clean energy products throughout their communities such as small solar lamps and lighting systems. This provides income-generating opportunities to women entrepreneurs and the solar products they sell bring much needed clean electricity to homes which allow children to do their homework at night and generally allow families to remain productive once the sun goes down.

It was incredible to see the direct impact this has on the communities.

Desk to Jungle

Getting away from my desk and onto a job site and getting some hands on, up close experience installing the technology I work to manage every day at CleanCapital was inspiring. It made me appreciate our efforts even more. No matter the context or location, from a national park in Nepal to a university in Arizona, providing clean, affordable energy and expanding the clean energy marketplace globally is incredibly important.

Learn more about service trips like this one with GRID Alternatives>