Solar energy panels are popping up everywhere in San Diego. They power home lighting systems, heat water, even charge our electric cars. Four local engineering students are now designing a solar energy system that will hopefully change hundreds of lives, half way around the world.
"This allows us to speak to a lap-top computer, so we can monitor the system real-time," said University of San Diego Enrique Rayon, as he demonstrated a prototype of the system on the university's rooftop.
The system designed by Rayon and his three USD colleagues uses solar panels to charge a bank of batteries, which power the lights.
It's a simple concept, but it needs special components to regulate the power flow, and properly store the electric energy.
That's because a bigger version of this system will be used in rural Africa, in the tiny village of Theou in southern Sudan, where there is no electrical power to back-up the solar panel system.
"There's no grid ties," explains Rayon, "so we have to figure out a way to do everything so that it works with the environment and also works with the people and their understanding of electricity."
The USD solar power system will provide light for a village school in Theou, which is now under construction.
"So electricity, it's a huge deal over there," explains Mou Riiny, who left Sudan as a child to escape that county's civil war, and is now an engineering student at USD. "A school with electricity, that's a massive deal."
Riiny continues to help his village, and has a very personal and emotional connection to this solar project.
"We want the community to take ownership of the project and the school all together," he says.
The USD engineering team will travel to Sudan this summer, to install the system. But once they've left, the villagers in Theou will have to fix it, if it breaks.
"So we're going to have some tutorials in place, some documentation, some manuals," explains Enrique Rayon.
If that's not enough help for the villagers to fix the problem, one of them will use the nearest phone to call the USD students for assistance.
But that's a major undertaking, because there is no cell phone coverage in Theou, and the nearest phone is fifty miles away, a full day's travel on Sudan's primitive roads.
A local company, AMSOLAR, donated $5,000 to the Sudan project, and also provides technical support for the USD engineering project.
AMSOLAR has a partnership with USD to provide 15 percent of the university's energy needs, and uses 5,200 solar panels on the roofs of 11 campus buildings -- at no cost to USD -- to generate that electricity.