Northern Alberta Institute of Technology

NAIT students help bring solar power to school in remote Peruvian village

“It really puts energy access and inequality issues into perspective”

Ccollpapata, a rural community in central Peru, is one of the world’s overlooked places. The town of roughly 500 people sits in a fold in the Andean mountains – at a dizzying elevation of 4,250 metres – in one of the South American country’s poorest regions.

Its isolation is reflected in, and likely worsened by, a lack of basic infrastructure, namely electricity. The nearest power lines are miles away. This made Ccollpapata a perfect candidate for electrification by Light up the World (LUTW), a charity dedicated to bringing energy to developing nations, Peru in particular.

With electricity come business opportunities, a higher quality of life and, especially in this case, improvements in education, like at Ccollpapata’s elementary and preschool, attended by roughly 100 students and the focus of LUTW’s efforts.

“The lack of energy has been difficult for us,” says Thomas Hugo Arteaga Yauricasa, school principal. “It has left us a little behind, in terms of technological education.”

The opportunity to change that has since advanced the eduction of students from NAIT. In spring 2022, 10 of them from NAIT’s Alternative Energy Technology program, along with two instructors, joined LUTW to help bring sustainable solar energy to Ccollpapata’s school.

It wasn’t NAIT’s first partnership with LUTW, but the trip ushered in a new era of commitment to international development by the alternative energy program. Thanks to the creation of a unique course and a new source of funding, the recent trip to Peru is now guaranteed not to be the last, ensuring future benefits for communities and students abroad, NAIT students and LUTW.

“To have that [ongoing partnership] now is a huge game changer for us,” says Aaron Cohen, LUTW project manager at Ccollpapata. “It’s good to have a passionate partner who cares about the same things we do.”

Light as a life-changing experience

Aerial view of the village of Ccollpapata, Peru

All that passion, however, wasn’t enough to prepare the NAIT students for what was to come.

“We definitely underplayed how much work it was going to be,” says Logan Hoyland (Alternative Energy Technology ’22), one of the student participants.

The travel was a job in itself. For those from Edmonton, elevation 645 m, it’s a health hazard to go from Lima, at sea level, to more than 4,000 . A two-night stopover at nearby Ayacucho, about 1,500 m lower than Ccollpapata, mitigated the dangers of the transition but couldn’t relieve the discomfort completely.

“It’s a feeling of breathlessness, and then the headaches roll in and you really have to stay hydrated,” says instructor Rae-Anne Wadey (Electrician ’16, Alternative Energy Technology ’13). “It’s not something to be cavalier about.”

“The elevation was tough,” says second-year student Jessica Morrison. In Ccollpapata, “I had to take breaks a few times to maintain the workload.”

NAIT alternative energy student Logan holroyd wires a charge controller during training in ayacucho peruThat workload revolved around installing three solar modules, capable of producing 825 watts in total, and the associated batteries to keep the lights on at night, which falls at about 5:30 p.m. year-round in Peru.

As Wadey points out, that’s a relatively small system to power two schoolrooms, an office, storage room, living accommodations for teachers, as well as to charge tablets and run a blender. (Parents volunteer to cook for the kids during the week – salsa and sauces are important). But here in the Andes, that wattage is enough.

“The sunlight is pretty intense and also it’s pretty cold,” says Cohen. The combination enhances generation.

“Probably, just one panel in the Andean mountains will produce on average 50% to 100% more than a panel in Canada.”

In four days, the team installed the system and ran all the wiring – a hands-on crash course after spending much of their program online during the pandemic. “They were responsible for everything,” says Wadey, who supervised the work on site.

It wasn’t until the end of their last day in Ccollpapata that they were finally able to set down their tools, do their final checks and send power flowing through the system. “It was pretty great to see everything light up and have all the teachers and some of the students there see it,” says Hoyland. “They were thrilled. They went into every room, flicking the lights on and off.”

That gratitude struck Morrison as well. “It really puts energy access and inequality issues into perspective. Witnessing firsthand the impact electricity can have in different parts of the world, that will stand out for me,” she says.

“It was an amazing, life-changing experience.”

Funding the future

NAIT Alternative Energy Technology students near Ccollpapata, Peru

That experience will now be available to more students, thanks to efforts spearheaded by alternative energy instructor Doug McFarlane. After the program connected with LUTW in 2016 through a chance meeting between its executive director at the time and current NAIT chair Jim Sandercock, McFarlane took over organizing students to participate. He also chased down funding.

Back then, the instructor would piece that together from corporations, government and institutions to lower costs as best he could, leaving students to cover the rest. What’s more, the work wasn’t counted for credit.

“They still had this amazing international experience and learned about the same kinds of things – intercultural competencies, intercultural communication, how to overcome challenges with projects that take place internationally in remote communities – but it wasn’t formal learning,” says McFarlane.

NAIT Alternative Energy Technology students training in Ayacucho, Peru

The solution was to turn the projects into an elective course. Writing formal curriculum for program credit (which wasn’t easy: “This is not my area of expertise,” says McFarlane. “In fact, I teach biofuels”) allowed him to make an application for the Global Skills Opportunity grant, funded by Employment and Social Development Canada.

He got every penny he asked for – enough to fund two projects a year for the next three years. Each cohort will take 11 students, half from alternative energy and half from other NAIT programs, contributing to the polytechnic’s focus on international learning opportunities. Special emphasis will be placed on including underrepresented student groups, such as low-income, Indigenous, and students with disabilities.

Having been on every trip so far, and looking forward to future trips, McFarlane’s Spanish is coming along slowly but surely – he’s even become a certified Duolingo instructor to use the language software as part of the course. He doesn’t mind the added responsibility. He believes in the work of LUTW and in the benefit it will have on NAIT students.

“Now that this is a course, it’s more deliberate, more structured,” McFarlane says. “I think they’re getting a better learning experience now.”

With the flick of a switch

Ccollpapata Primary School in Peru TLT lit up for first time at night

That may apply to Ccollpapata’s students, too. As local teachers point out, they'll now be able to use the tablets that were supplied as learning tools by the Peruvian government.

“They have taken us out of that predicament, of that need that we had,” says teacher Lourdes Melgar Enciso of the efforts of LUTW and the NAIT students.

Cohen isn’t sure when that would have happened had it not been for this partnership. One of the criteria for choosing a community is the existence of plans to connect it to the electrical grid. According to him, that wasn’t going to happen anytime soon. For whatever reason, Ccollpapata hadn’t been prioritized for the service, maybe not unlike how communities go lacking in parts of the developed world, Canada included.

Sustainable electricity, and its myriad benefits, are but one part of the legacy of NAIT and LUTW’s work. Eyes being opened is another. Morrison and Hoyland both realized how their skills can be put toward overcoming inequities; they saw the difference made by sinking a pole into the ground to mount a solar module and, thereafter, the simple flick of a switch.

The people of Ccollpapata, says Cohen, see it the same way, though under a different light.

“A lot of these communities are forgotten,” he says, as a Calgarian who’s worked with LUTW for more than three years. “So to have a student group come to their community all the way from Canada, it’s a powerful message for them. The locals really feel that someone out there cares about them.”

“It’s a really quick project,” Cohen adds. “But there’s some sort of special connection.”

NAIT alternative energy technology instructor rae-anne wadey in Ccollpapata, Peru

Banner image by Rae-Anne Wadey


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