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Virginia Tech Students Bring Electricity to Kenya

Mechanical Engineering students are usually required to design and implement a senior project before graduation. Engineering majors at one Virginia university have put together a project hoping to get a good grade and, more importantly, to bring electricity to a clinic in a small Kenyan village.

The idea of designing and constructing an energy system for a clinic appealed to a group of Virginia Tech Mechanical Engineering seniors. The nine students were excited to try to provide what this clinic needed to run its medical machines and preserve vaccines. Emily Morgan is part of the team.

"Basically, from that point on, we were like, how we're going to make the electricity, what is the best method to do that?" she says. "It's Kenya, and it's warm. So there is not a lot of water, so we pretty much eliminated any renewable energy that had to do with water. Then we opted to look at wind and solar. We looked at how much sun there is in Kenya, how much wind there is in Kenya. The sun was prevalent over the wind, so we chose to go with solar panels."

The students designed solar panels that absorb sunlight during the day and convert it into electricity. The system will provide about 24 kilowatts of solar energy to the clinic every day. Graduate student Mark Showalter, who is working with the seniors, says the group's enthusiasm has grown as the project has progressed from one stage to the next.

"Any time you can depart from the paper and the numbers and get to know people who are involved, it definitely puts a reality to the project, a human side to the project that's I'd say essential for this type of project," Showalter says.

In January, Showalter and some of the seniors traveled to the southwestern Kenyan village where the project will eventually be implemented. Garret Bradley says going to Getongoroma allowed the group to gather the logistical details required for finalizing the project.

"One of those was assessing transportation from Nairobi to the rural site where the clinic in located," he says. "We looked at what means of transportation were going to be available by talking to the medical officials at the clinic. We looked at where we were going to be able to install the panels. The main focus of this trip was to determine where shadows would fall throughout the day, and year round, as the shadows shifted from season to season."

Meeting with the people who will benefit from the project, Bradley says, has inspired him to pursue more service-oriented work.

"I see in this small experience I had this past year how much better it feels to work for somebody else, for something other than just a pay check," he says. "The people were amazing. They received us so well. They were so excited about this, so thankful that we would consider giving a little bit of ourselves to help them out."

Team member David Raines says the project gave him the sort of experience that he couldn't get in a classroom. Working in the field, he says, students had to deal with logistics, "trying to understand how to implement something outside of our country, dealing with other governments."

This project is different from the ones engineering students typically present before graduating, according to Virginia Tech Mechanical Engineering Professor Uri Vandsburger, the group's advisor.

"It's different because it involves the humanitarian aspect," he says. "It involves different places. It involves different cultures. It's a combination of technical know-how and meeting cultures. I always encourage students to participate in international activities because the United States is big enough that you think that it is the world and there is no need to look outside."

The nine students have set up a website where people around the world can see their project and its progress. They are now running a fundraising campaign to collect the money needed to build the system and ship it to Kenya. They say they hope their project will be used as a model for communities elsewhere in Kenya and other African countries.