SEATTLE — In today’s day and age, a smart phone and wireless internet access are among the seemingly everyday comforts we generally do not give much thought, while entire communities elsewhere struggle to provide a necessity like electricity to its residents to power clinics, store food and more. As a result, many charitable and non-profit organizations are doing their part in helping energy-poor areas do more than just turn on the lights. 

One such group doing their part in aiding these communities is Engineers Without Borders USA and the Seattle University chapter known as KiloWatts for Humanity (KWH), which is under the direction of Electrical and Computer Engineering Associate Professor, Dr. Henry Louie, Ph.D. 

Prior to the start of the 2019-20 academic year at SU, both groups recently visited Cheeba, Zambia to help the community by installing a microgrid that powers energy kiosks with solar panels. The energy kiosks in turn allows members of a community to power appliances and more.

On this year’s journey, SU women’s swimmer Julia Gorman was one of two students selected to accompany Dr. Louie and a team of professional electrical engineers. Following a return Stateside from a 10-day trip with KiloWatts for Humanity, the senior from Bend, Oregon wrote a summary of her experience and work in Africa.

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KiloWatts for Humanity is a chapter through Engineers Without Borders that supports local businesses by providing electricity to communities that are off the power grid and do not have electricity. This year they chose a women’s group in Cheeba, Zambia who plan to use the microgrid for freezing, sewing and a salon. They hire local contractors to help install the solar panels, as to not take jobs from Zambian businesses. 

This was first year working with KWH. I have always made sure that service has been a part of my life since middle school. I previously volunteered with the Bureau of Fearless Ideas, an after-school mentoring program in Seattle's International District. But as the time demands no longer fit with my schedule, I instead found KWH, which offered me an opportunity to take skills that I had learned in school and challenged me and apply them in real-world situation for communities. 

My role with KiloWatts for Humanity was to work on the data acquisition and help out with the research team. The data acquisition team helps monitor the microgrids by looking at how they are performing, quantifying battery power, energy levels, sun intensity and temperatures to help understand how efficient the solar panels and system are. From there, the team takes this information and looks for ways to improve future projects or publish findings to help other people with similar ideas improve their projects. 

KWH helped fund two SU students along with a team of five professional engineers. The other student was tasked with community engagement and helped collect data through surveys of how the community worked, equal access, the local economy, how they viewed the energy kiosk and what negative consequences they saw. 

As the representative of the data acquisition team, I was required to understand the hardware behind the Data Acquisition Server (DAS). I had to learn how each part functioned to then relay information and how to assemble it. Once I got there I had to retest it to make sure it continued to work and then install it. 

The thing that I was most apprehensive about in regards to the trip was being able to properly do the job in the amount of time we had and feeling under qualified. While this may sound like an easy task, the DAS is lovingly called "the finicky bastard." It was hard to get it properly working even in the U.S., and it became the last thing to finally get working. We had to overcome challenges of not having access to the tools we would easily find in the States, trying to see if it was connecting to servers without having reliable cell service, and then having to build a 30-foot antenna for it to be able to find service—something KWH had not had done on any of its previous projects.

We then trained the women’s group and community leaders to properly use the equipment and how to fix certain problems if occurred. The team also provides remote assist if more significant issues arise. 

Being able to have this experience gave me a chance to learn what it means to be a global citizen. It gave me the opportunity to go out into Cheeba and ask questions of the community (with translators), allowing me to learn about their history and traditions. I got to cook and dance with the women. I played soccer and other games with the children and taught them the only American dance I remembered—the Macarena. I had crowds of men watching me work, perhaps curious about a woman performing this kind of work. 

Most importantly, I asked questions about how this will change their lives and what having electricity will mean to them. They told me things I never would have thought about as being an impact. They also talked about climate change and the impact it has on their community. Cheeba’s main industry is farming and fishing. As the river does not rise as far, it is harder for the cattle and gardens to get water and less fish are available. As the water table levels drop, it becomes harder for them to pump out clean water. 

We weren’t able to fix all of Cheeba’s problems, however the work KWH did in providing electricity will help make the clinic safer, the food safer and provide a stronger economy. I am grateful for this opportunity and look forward in continuing to help others.