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"Oregon students charge their ideals by bringing power to African villages"

Nine Oregon Institute of Technology students will install solar panels this summer and bring electricity to isolated villages

"Oregon students charge their ideals by bringing power to African villages"

credit Slobodan Petrovic

Eric Mortenson, The Oregonian
>>click here for original article

It's a two-part journey, the concluding part being the long flight from Oregon to Tanzania, where nine Oregon Institute of Technology students will install solar panels this summer and bring electricity to isolated villages.

The first leg of their trip was internal. From unrewarding jobs or unfocused academic pursuits to, as their professor puts it, "a basic expression of the highest humanitarian principle to help those in need."

The students are enrolled in OIT's Renewable Energy Engineering program, which began at the college's Clackamas campus in 2005. The program was the first in the U.S. and prepares students for jobs in the emerging fields of solar, wind, biomass and geothermal energy. The college's leadership in the field comes naturally: the OIT home campus in Klamath Falls is geothermally heated, and the college recently completed a geothermal project that produces electricity as well. The renewable energy program tends to attract idealistic but motivated students who have concluded conventional energy is environmentally unsustainable and socially unfair.

In that regard, their beliefs meld with the views of OIT associate professor Slobodan Petrovic, an immigrant from the former Yugoslavia who arranged the Africa trip. He believes energy sources such as crude oil create political imbalance.

"There's no such danger with renewable energy sources," Petrovic says. "That was my inspiration when I put this together, that's how I feel. The sun is not controlled by anyone. It's so abundant, which should translate into abundant energy for everyone."

In Tanzanian villages that now lay disconnected from electricity, the students will attempt that translation.

The OIT students will install 25 solar photovoltaic panels donated by a German company, TUV Rheinland, from its Arizona testing laboratory. The panels convert sunlight to electricity that will light schools and clinics, charge batteries, power computers and charge cell phones. The students will design the systems and work with local technicians to install and test them.

Schools are the first priority, with the requirement that they are least 10 kilometers from the electrical connection, have at least 200 students and demonstrate they can maintain the systems and protect them from thieves.

Worthy sites are not hard to find, says Petrovic, because about 80 percent of the people have no electricity. He spent several months in Tanzania last year on a similar project, and founded a non-profit, Solar Hope, with the intention of establishing renewable energy projects in underdeveloped regions of the world. Students from OIT or other colleges will provide a permanent pool of volunteers for the projects, he says.

Petrovic believes electricity can be a great equalizer. In an article he wrote about his first Tanzanian trip, titled "An Unforgettable Journey," he said access to lighting and communication is a catalyst for development.

"The ability to read at night, listen to a radio, or watch a movie," he wrote, "...or to communicate with friends and relatives through the use of cellular phone technology, are the forces of change that are enabling the integration of these segments of the population with the rest of the world."

It's a lesson his students embrace.

John Grieser, who will be a senior at OIT this fall, majored in business at a Colorado university before realizing his interest lay with broader issues, such as renewable energy.

"That's one of the things that attracted me to this program," he says. "All the rigor of an engineering program, but with a humanitarian aspect. "One of the thing I like about renewables is you can take it anywhere. You don't need a utility-scale grid. You can take it to the third world, or to a cabin up in the woods."

A rooftop solar system represents "the best human aid you can provide," Grieser says. Energy, he says, provides access to knowledge and wealth. Jennifer Ferris's background includes a degree in psychology, interior design and fine arts classes, "soul sucking" social service work at a hospital and a recently ended stint as a real estate broker. The OIT engineering program is the best fit, she says.

"Most of us have been out in the field, worked in the system -- or a couple systems -- and seen how the world works," she says. "We're idealistic and in the program because we want to make a difference. I can't wait, it's going to be life-changing."

Brandon Little took medical classes and owned a business selling kitchen housewares before enrolling in renewable energy engineering. Like many of the students, the Tanzania trip will be his first international travel.

"The human side of it really appeals to me," he says. "It's such a juxtaposition between the different parts of the world. It's incredibly unfair; I have to help with that."

The other students traveling to Tanzania are Andres Barron, Leslie Annand, Dan Sweeney, Sean Laraway, Derek Wilson and Jon-Michael Cohn. Faculty member Grant Kirby will accompany them when they leave Aug. 15; Petrovic is already in Tanzania.

The students will receive course credit for their work in Africa, but must pay their own way. They estimate the trip will cost a minimum of $3,000 each. The Tanzania trip will allow them to apply what they've learned in the classroom and make an immediate improvement in people's lives, says Associate Professor Robert Bass, who directs the engineering program. And in Petrovic, the students find a professor as gung-ho as they are.

"It's very rare to find people who are idealistic and willing to act, and Dr. Petrovic is one of those," Bass says. "Petrovic says let's go to Africa and make a difference, no holds barred. Seeing that level of motivation and intensity is really precious."

 
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