Three teams of Cal Poly students traveled to Ghana to complete three solar power engineering projects in June 2019 within the small village of Agbokpa. This included building a community center, building a water tower and experimenting with ways to cook with solar panels.
Professor Nathan Heston, who led the trip, has done solar projects on campus in the past but decided to take these skills global by spearheading this trip, first with the Cal Poly National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA), and then by enlisting students from the Cal Poly Mechanical Association of America (MCAA).
Building a community
The community center constructed by NECA features extensive lighting so community members could host events at night. The center also has charging stations, as well as ventilation fans and an entertainment system.
“It took us 10 days straight of working 10 to 12 hour days,” construction management senior Michael Klee said.
Klee raised $60,000 for the project with fundraising flyers, videos and contacts in the industry. Even when the international shipping of their materials was delayed, the participants changed their flights to be able to complete the project.
The community center also features a solar powered ice production system. Agbokpa is a fishing village and its main source of revenue is the catching and selling of fish from Lake Volta.
Using solar technology, the NECA team lined deep chest freezers with plastic and poured in a saltwater solution. Freshwater bags placed in this freezer froze within three hours and participants placed them in fishermen’s individual coolers along with the fish they caught.
The ice-making system means villagers can preserve the fish until they go to market, according to Klee.
Bringing fresh water to Agbokpa
In the months leading up to the Ghana trip, the MCAA team designed a 21-foot tall water tower that would filter and pump the lake water, increasing the village’s access to clean water. However, upon arrival, the site conditions were different than they thought, and so the team went back to the drawing board.
Rather than redesigning the tower to fit the unexpected landscape, after working with community members, the students decided to create a sand filtration system to bring clean water to Agbokpa.
Long said he hopes the new system will ease Agbokpa’s struggles with diseases that result from dirty water.
“Hopefully, it will help them with the persistent dysentery and cholera issues that the village has,” Long said.
The final project during the trip was completed by the solar cooking team, consisting of students experimenting with a way for the villagers to cook with pots that are heated through solar power.
How does solar cooking work?
The students, under advisor Pete Shwartz, created cheap and efficient solar cookers by connecting a chain of inexpensive diodes to a solar panel. The team then placed the pots in insulation, which made them usable cooking vessels once hot.
Because each unit only costs around $50 to make, it is the cheapest way to generate and use electricity, according to physics senior Nick Adams.
In Agbokpa, the women and children who cook often endure prolonged exposure to smoke from wood burning and have a greater risk of respiratory issues. Solar cooking team member and industrial engineering junior Grace Gius said she wanted to combat these and other harmful effects and reduce the villagers’ dependence on biomass.
Students walked away from the trip with newly learned skills, but the trip’s most impactful memories, Gius said, were her daily interactions with the people of Agbokpa.
“It’s the people,” Gius said. “The people make it beautiful.”