Lighting Up with Solar Sisters

We arrived in Frankfurt Germany yesterday afternoon after 2 full-on days in Dubai and Abu Dhabi after leaving Nepal. We mastered Frankfurt’s very efficient train and bus system to travel a bit outside of town to a campground (even hostels cost about 90 Euro for the family! … campground was 25 Euro). Last night was a bit cold in the tent (5degC?) Today we will start the search for bicycles to purchase for the next two months of cycle touring, and hopefully the box of cycle equipment our friend Javier sent from Canada 6 weeks ago will arrive today (it was in Hamburg 2 days ago). Hoping to hit the road in a couple of days.
Lots of blogging ahead of us to catch up on the amazing time we had in Nepal. Please forgive the lull in entries.  Our WordPress App updated itself 10 days ago and the new version is awful.  I kept losing text and photos.  And worse, believe it or not, Kaia lost another entire entry (remember her Hong Kong entry disappeared).  So she had to start from scratch, yet again.  After hours of searching around, I found a way to reinstall the older version and we’re back up and running again.

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Anyone who knows me knows I love renewable energy, and especially love the promise of solar power.  At home in Peterborough, we have 77 large panels installed on two roofs.  I like looking at them.  I like even more that they generate much more green energy than is used by the two houses, with the excess being sold to the electricity grid.  And of course I like that they have been a good investment through the provisions of Ontario’s Green Energy Act.  On this trip, I have always been on the lookout for how electricity is produced and to what extent renewables have been implemented.

There are a few things that are important to understanding Nepal’s electricity system.
1. Virtually 100% of the grid electricity is generated by abundant hydro power.  Many rural areas are serviced by micro hydro generation that may or may not be connected to the main grid.

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This is the middle Marsyangdi dam - the second largest hydro generating facility in Nepal.

2. There is not enough grid electricity to supply the country’s fast growing demand (current capacity is 800MW, demand is 1400MW), so rolling blackouts (or “load shedding” as it is known here) are common throughout the country, including the two largest cities Kathmandu and Pokhara.  We have experienced this every day we’ve been here.
3. Businesses, homes and institutions have installed small scale solar PV where they can afford it so they have at least some lighting during the regular blackouts.  But most homes and many institutions have not been able to afford even these basic systems.
4. Nepal’s extremely rugged geography means that many of the remote areas are not serviced by the grid, and nor are they easily accessed for the transport of off grid solar components of panels and batteries.

Enter the Himalayan Light Foundation.   HLF was founded about 20 years ago “to improve the quality of life of the remote population of the Himalayan and South Asia region via the introduction and use of environmentally friendly renewable energy technologies (RETs).”  The organization uses very small scale solar technology to provide light and income opportunities to rural Nepal.  In doing so it also reduces the health, environment and income setbacks of burning kerosene or wood for light.  Many of the projects have partnered with local women’s groups.  One of the HLF’s main forms of implementation is called Solar Sisters.  This project “offers international traveler / philanthropists an incredible opportunity to visit some of the most remote and majestic sites in the world, live with indigenous communities, and promote environmental and social justice by sponsoring the installation of a solar energy system.  “Solar Sisters” are men and women from across the globe, students and professionals, individuals, retired people and  groups. 
Project objectives include:
– To offer solar energy to communities who could not otherwise afford electrical systems
– To support the energy rights and roles of women and villagers whose limited financial resources results in oppression and voicelessness.
– To fill the gap not covered by existing RET support programs which normally tend to reach the richer individuals.
– To reach the poorest populations with these services.
– To create harmony and understanding among the diverse and disparate peoples of the world by close and supportive, meaningful and immediate asistance.
– To create an opportunity for international travelers, village residents to learn first hand about practical applications of solar electricity
– To enable foreign volunteers to see South Asia in a more involved, useful and realistic level than simple tourism allows.

Typically, recipient organizations are schools, health centers, community centers and monasteries.  They are paired with a donor/visitor according to system size (depth of donor pocket) and donor’s preferred area of travel.

So you can see why this caught my interest back in August when I was doing some planning for our Nepal leg of the journey.  But I had difficulty finding contact info for HLF and emails I sent did not receive responses.  Fast forward to 5 days before we arrived in Nepal.  Remember my Hong Kong friend Mark?  He was looking into expanding his business into Nepal and had made contact with a “fixer” guy in Kathmandu – the sort of person who knows lots of the right sorts of people and can make things happen.  Mark put me in touch with this fellow and within a few hours I was in email conversation with Yadav Gurung, HLF’s Project Manager.  We agreed to meet upon our arrival in Kathmandu which we did on the 1st morning.  Yadav greeted us with a very warm smile, four symbolic red scarves, and we got right down to planning.  Because we had not had time to plan ahead, he had only a small window of time open between two other installations, and this meant that we would not have time to travel/trek any great distance into a village like many donors like to do (In some instances the recipient villages were 8 days’ trek from the nearest road).  He knew of a health center that had a very busy birthing center that was without electricity and lights most of the time.  The village was a very rough 4 hr local bus ride from Pokhara (Nepal’s 2nd largest city) which itself was an 8 hr bus ride from Kathmandu.  We wanted to use Pokhara as a base for trekking after the install, so this made good sense to us.  We would miss out on the trek to the recipient village, but knew we’d have plenty of time for this later.  The next day was spent (as Jake describes in the last post) getting organized and outfitted for the trekking while Yadav and his technician got the solar equipment together.  We met the next morning at 7AM to get the “tourist” bus to Pokhara.

Yadav had booked our tickets and made sure we were sitting on the right side of the bus.  Most of the trip is spent winding along beside several very scenic rivers.  We must have passed at least 30 pedestrian suspension bridges over the river and hundreds of rice fields.

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The distance from Kathmandu to Pokhara is only 200km but takes 8hrs because of the very twisty and busy road.

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Turquoise water coming from above into this hydro station was mixing with the clear water of the river to an interesting effect.

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The Manakamana cable car takes worshipers to the top of the mountain ridge to the Manakamana temple. The cable cars often have live goats and chickens in them to be sacrificed at this temple. I wish we could have had a couple hours off the bus to have a look.
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There are many rafting companies operating on this river, about half way along. Very scenic, but beside the road and only class 2. There are other more lively rivers in Nepal for rafting.
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Arriving at the Pokhara bus station with Hira collecting our panel, battery and box of wires, fasteners and LED bulbs.
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The taxis in Nepal are generally pretty tiny but fortunately have roof racks so we could get around with our 4 packs.

The journey was long but pleasant for 3 of us with two nice stops for food.  Jake was less enthralled with the trip though because he threw up four times.  He does struggle with car sickness but this experience was much worse than usual.

We were to head off to the village early the next morning.  But Jake kept throwing up and we came to realize he hadn’t been car sick but instead had something more serious.  He did not do well through the night.  Yvonne had been sick the night before we left for Pokhara and her stomach was still off.  Then Kaia threw up in the morning.  Clearly they were not fit for a 4 hr bus ride on a crowded bumpy bus.  Pushing the installation back wasn’t really an option because Yadav and technician Hira had to get back to Kathmandu in a couple days to start the next install.  So we had to make the difficult and disappointing decision that only I would go to help with the install and the other three would try to catch up to us in the village if/when healthy.  We had envisioned this as a family project.

Yadav, Hira and I got a taxi to the bus station early morning and were the only ones on the bus when it left.  I remarked “Wow, we get our own private bus!”, but Yadav assured me that the bus would fill up.

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I chose to sit up in the front cab area of the bus to get a better view of the journey. It had a lovely ambiance with incense burning in the driver's little dashboard shrine and some heavenly Nepali folk music playing. To get into the spirit, listen to the music at https://youtu.be/cAb93ukxWi8 while you read the blog.

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It took about an hour to just get out of Pokhara, with the snarled traffic and many stops to pick up passengers.  The seats were now full.  We then made our way past Begnas Lake which is scenic and a popular spot for tourists wanting to get out of Pokhara.

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This fruit stand in Begnas is so characteristic of Nepal.

Then the real journey began.  Up up up we went, into the forest on an increasingly rough and rutted road.  By this time the front cab area of the bus had 12 passengers including myself.  The main seating area was full and the standing room aisle jammed too.  This daily bus is the life line for the villagers as few own motorcycles and virtually none own cars.

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The road starts off pretty nicely ...

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then gets a bit lumpy ...
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A few times I thought we'd get stuck in the muddy ruts.
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Indonesia had beautiful rice terraces. Philippines too. But Nepal had the most elaborate we've seen yet. They represent an unimaginable amount of work ... all by hand.
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Dropping back down after the pass into the valley where Rambazaar is situated.
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This little solar panel likely is coupled to a motorcycle battery and powers a couple of LED lights.
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For years, access to Rambazaar from this direction was only by foot via this impressive suspension bridge. I'm not sure how recent the road bridge is.
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Final approach into Rambazaar.
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Coming off the bus and fetching our panel and battery in Rambazaar.

We immediately walked the short distance over to the health center for introductions and orientation.

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Entrance to the health facility.

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1st sight in health center is Dr. Dahrmandi examining this patient.
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The health team was waiting for us and greeted us with fresh local flower leis. They then gave the Solar Sister team red "tikka" dots on the forehead. The tikka represents Shiva's all-seeing third eye and symbolizes wisdom. Nepali tikkas are made from red dye, yogurt and rice. Unfortunately I think I got a bit too much - you can see it running down my forehead and onto my nose!

All in the group introduced themselves.  Next to Yadav on the left is Dr. Dharmadhi, medical assistant Samjhang, widwife Namila, me, nurse Ranjana, and office helpers Tikaram and Narayan.  They were pleased of course to be receiving the light system and explained their challenges of birthing by headlamp.

Our lunch was delayed so we immediately got to work. We assembled the panel mounting system and had the panel mounted on the third floor balcony before heading off to lunch.
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Note the panel mounted on the 3rd floor balcony.
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Yadav, Hira and I ate our lunch and dinner at one of the town's little guest houses. They were very basic - local (squat) toilet outside downstairs, and the bedroom tiny ... but it all works. Lunch and dinner were the very typical "dal bhat" - dal with rice and a bit of curried vegetables.

Short lunch and right back to work. Hira had an incredible focus. He knew exactly what he was doing and did not stop moving. I helped but he was so competent and task oriented I felt like he must be just tolerating my help. But I know he has been given very clear direction from Yadav to allow the sponsor/volunteer to help wherever they want so they feel more ownership for the final result.

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Connecting the panel to the battery which is two floors below.

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Thanks for letting me get in your way, Hira.

Once the panel was connected to the battery and the charge controller installed (the charge controller ensures that the battery does not overcharge, and shuts off the feed to the lights if the battery runs too low), we started stringing wires into the rooms for the lights. One light in the inpatient room (4 beds), 1 in the store room/pharmacy, 3 strategically placed in the birthing/procedure room, one in the outside verandah so arriving patients can find their way and 1 in each of the two initial intake/examination rooms.

During the afternoon an interesting challenge arose. The nursing staff & families live upstairs and of course live by the same intermittent power realities as the health center. At a personal level they were encouraged by the solar installation because they hoped we would electrify their apartments. But it is HLF’s policy not to provide lighting to personal accommodations because invariably they would become charging stations for all village mobile phones and this, with the additional lighting loads can overload the system and compromise the core function of birthing center lighting. But Yadav explained to me that in this culture you can’t really say “no” to such requests. Instead he told the staff that he would try to meet their requests but only after the core functions had been taken care of. Sure enough, when we’d finished the system we’d installed 8 lights and had two bulbs left over for replacement, so he apologized for not being able to accommodate their wish. In Canada, with two more bulbs, we would have installed another two sockets/switches to max out the lighting. But here, with the LED bulbs being so expensive and hard to procure, HLF has realized that they must leave some extras. Burned out bulbs are not likely to get replaced.

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I was a bit worried to learn that all wire joins are made by doing nothing more than a good twist between the wires then a generous application of electrical tape. We were days away from a hardware store so I was in no position to suggest a more robust system of joining. Electrical code is not an issue here!

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The tech is purposefully simple to allow for quick installation with a bare minimum of tools. The switch wire would dangle down and this switch would be tethered to the wall few inches above.

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These miserly 4W LED bulbs produced an impressive amount of light. And their longevity will serve this health care center well.

I explored the health center while the installation was in progress and was quite saddened by the facilities. Overall, things were in a very run down state of affairs. Clearly, health care dollars in these rural locations are limited, and the staff here are stretching to provide the best care they can in difficult circumstances. The birthing room was really nothing more than two beds (one for examination, one for delivery) …. I did not see any intervention equipment in sight. Similarly, the pharmacy appeared to my untrained eye to be stocked with only the most basic sorts of things: vitamin boosters, stomach antacids, pain killers and antibiotics. And one that rather surprised and amused me … look carefully at the label below!
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This is the birthing room with 2 of the 3 new lights visible.

We (OK, 90% Hira, with us helping by handing him things and moving the desk that served as the ladder) finished the installation in the fading daylight using a headlamp.

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Hira makes the final connection.

So, we test the system and …. voila 8 new bulbs light up 6 different rooms. Applause went up all around, and then I had the team pose for a few photos.

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Health team posing in front of their newly lit birthing table.

Doctor Dharmadhi gave me a passionate thank you, and we then went to the (unlit) meeting room upstairs to enjoy some food and drink together. This was a lovely feeling to sit with these folks. Of course I felt happy that my family could help in this small way. But I was humbled and overwhelmed by the need here, and felt it simply the least our family could do to help. Especially in light of the fact we are jetting around the world this year with beautiful medical insurance!

I went to bed with a very full belly after another round of dal bhat and learned before retiring that Yvonne and the kids, while mostly recovered, would not be making the trip to see the health center and solar install. There is only one bus per day (early morning) and the install was finished. So they would spend 4 hrs on the bus, have 2 hrs to look around, then board the one afternoon bus for a 4 hr return trip. Yadav and Hira would have already left. So sadly, I realized that my family would not really be a part of this project. Perhaps on a return trip to Nepal?

We returned to the clinic early next morning to meet with the area’s head Doctor (Soti) who had been at a TB workshop the previous day (TB is still a problem in Nepal). He too expressed gratitude and signed the official HLF document to verify the install.

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Dr. Soti signs off with Yadav and Hira looking on back left.

We noted in the HLF office in Kathmandu that many of the hundreds of solar installs over the past 2 decades had been indicated on a country map.  And there was a book of photos.  But I remarked to Yadav that it would be excellent to have a little GIS map page on their website to geo-reference all the installs where prospective donors/visitors could pull up project photos and descriptions by clicking on the recipient villages.  He said this was on their wish list but they did not have a budget to implement it.  When back home, I hope to connect with the GIS program at Sanford Flemming College in Peterborough to find a student who could do this as a course project.

The Himalayan Light Foundation does important and innovative work. Those who want to help but can’t make their way to Nepal can donate directly to support all or part of a new install. Yadav is very committed to this work.  He has been at the helm for about 20 years and before that was very involved in community based reforestation work.  Thank you, Yadav.  I really hope my family can do another install some day and go back to Rambazaar to meet the health team again and see the simple wonder of solar technology at work.

Cam

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