Installing solar panels high in the Peruvian Andes provides more than just electricity
It took a few days for the small team from Western Colorado University to get from Denver to Ayacucho, Peru. But even then, they were only part of the way to their destination. From Ayacucho, they set off on a 4-hour overland journey high into the Andes Mountains to the small village of Pueblo Nuevo, about 14,000 feet above sea level. That’s where they would spend the next week installing solar panels and giving the school children the chance to do something they’d never done before: turn on a classroom light.
Addressing Global Energy Poverty with Light Up The World Partnership
By 1960, it was almost unheard of that someone living in the United States would go without electricity or the artificial lighting it made possible. And yet, more than 60 years later, there are still around 1.2 billion people around the world who rely solely on the sun or fire for light.
That’s a reality the faculty and students in Western’s Energy Management Program wanted to help change by partnering with Light Up The World (LUTW), a non-profit organization focused on bringing the benefits of sustainable energy development to developing communities far from the power grid.
Their mission struck a lot of chords with Jessica Laramie, director of Western’s Energy Management Program, which sent its first faculty and students to install solar panels and light fixtures in Peru in 2016. Since then, Western’s involvement has grown. Today, Laramie works with the executive board to help with fundraising and developing partnerships with industry and academic programs like Western’s.
“I genuinely love the projects and the organization so much that I just want to help make sure they have the resources and partnerships in place to continue doing what they’re doing well into the future,” Laramie said.
In 2022, then-EM student Gabriel Pardue started the Western Energy Poverty Initiative with the goal of making the relationship with LUTW more affordable, reducing the cost of the trip for students from $3,500 to $500 with industry help. Nine EM students traveled several hours in four-wheel-drive vehicles to the small village of Pucaccasa, 13,000 feet above sea level in the Peruvian Andes, to complete a project in the summer of 2023.
Transformative Experiences for EM Students in Rural Peru
When students arrived in Peru, they spent a day acclimating and learning about the electrical systems they’d be installing. Then, along with a guide from LUTW who has solar installation experience, they traveled to the village and settled in for their four or five-day stay. There, the student’s education goes far beyond solar panels and circuitry. While they’re in Peru, they have the chance to interact with community members and learn about their culture and lifestyle.
The students also learn to really appreciate things like clean, readily available drinking water and electricity and the standard of living they have at home. Along with a miniature power grid, they build a connection and community with other students who are interested in making a difference in people’s lives, Laramie said, as well as developing a greater sense of purpose and fulfillment as they prepare to start their careers in the energy industry.
“There’s so many reasons why we do this trip,” she said. “Along with gaining a deep understanding of off-grid solar electricity systems and all of the things that go along with bringing that to, and staying in, a rural Peruvian village, our students have the opportunity to effectuate real, measurable progress and help a community seeking resources to support its people.”
Before they left the village to tour some of Peru’s ancient Maya sites, the students joined community members in a celebration where an elder expressed his gratitude for the work the group had done, children performed a traditional dance, and a meal was prepared in their honor.
“It has truly changed my life, as it does for most who are selected to participate in the trip. The landscapes dwarf even Colorado. And the people I have had the chance to cross paths with on these trips have given me a new outlook on my life back in the United States,” Pardue said. “Overall, the experiences are humbling and eye-opening and something that I want everyone to experience.”