Courtney Falconer thought she was prepared.
For months, she and a team of NSCC students and faculty had been working out the logistics to set up a solar energy system at a vocational school in Mikumi, Tanzania. The goal was to provide reliable power to the servers at the school so they wouldn’t go down during frequent outages that plague the nation’s hydroelectric system during drought seasons.
But when the Electrical Engineering Technology student arrived at the Mikumi Vocational Training Centre in April, she found out there were other plans. "The principal wanted the solar panels mounted on accommodation units by the main road to power the lights and receptacles,” she explains. “It was partly for the sake of the students, because the units provide revenue to the school, but I think he also wanted to show the community what they were doing.”
Over the next two weeks, Courtney and the NSCC team worked together with students and faculty at the vocational school to adapt to this change in plans. “It wasn’t easy,” says team member Barry Sonmor.
“There was a language barrier in that most people speak Swahili, which makes talking about technical information challenging. Also, they didn’t have the same standards or schematics you’d find at home, so we had to work out how their electrical system was wired, and the loads it could handle.”
Collaboration, diagrams and testing helped overcome the language barriers and wiring challenges. But when it came time to mount the solar panels the NSCC team had transported to Tanzania, they ran into another difficulty: the tin roofs of the accommodation units could not support the weight. The solution came from the Mikumi students, who constructed a six-foot shed to host the panels.
“It turned out to be a great idea,” says Courtney. “Not only are the panels easy to maintain, the setup allows electrical students in Mikumi to do practical labs on the panels to understand how they work.”
Five accommodation units now have reliable power, making academic life more comfortable for students. And, as Courtney explains, it’s also helping the school save money. “The lights are run off the panel 24 hours a day, so there is no electrical cost.”
Both Courtney and Barry say they appreciated the opportunity to apply what they learned at NSCC in a hands-on setting and they expect the experience will help them in their careers. They also hope to return to Tanzania to see the friends they made there.
“I actually set up a Facebook account because they wanted to keep in touch,” laughs Barry. “We may have taken solar energy technology to them, but they dragged me into the 21st century.”