People who would most benefit from solar power are at the very low income level and cannot afford to install solar panels or even weatherize their homes. A non-profit called Grid Alternatives, based in California, was begun in 2001 to bring solar power to people who need it most, provide training for volunteers and solar job trainees, and create a cleaner environment.
The organization offers plenty of free volunteer opportunities for helping install solar power in homes in the United States, but the need is so great in countries like Nicaragua and Africa where the people have no electricity at all. Many college students are spending their spring breaks doing solar installations. Watch the video of the Sunrun company volunteers bringing solar power to rural Portrero Sur, Nicaragua in February 2014 and consider planning a vacation helping very grateful people.
The next international trip for volunteers that is not full as of this writing is on April 18-26, 2015 to Agua Fria, department of Esteli, Nicaragua to install an off-grid photovoltaic system on the community school. It is the only school in town and has two classrooms and a room for the teacher to sleep overnight. It is used for first through sixth grades, a weekend technical program for students, and a night adult literacy program. The project will bring the community lights and AC electricity to help improve the quality and access to education.
Agua Fria is a small town of 159 people in 30 houses with no electricity located 6km from the electric grid. Residents use kerosene lamps or candles at night and have no running water. Many own a cell phone but must walk up a hill to get a signal to make and receive calls. They haul water in buckets from a well to their homes and bathe and do laundry in a nearby river. For a living, families grow wheat, corn and beans and some cattle mostly for their own use but some for income at a local market. A public bus visits the community twice a week in the dry season when the road is passable.
Electricity at the school can change a child’s life. For example on the Island of Ometepe in Nicaragua, the new electricity at the elementary school meant the the community qualified for the One Laptop per Child program (OLPC). Each student now has a rugged low-power laptop to use daily in class and at home at night. OLPC has distributed nearly three million educational devices to children around the world.
Part of the solar installation is training of community members on which appliances should be used with the system, how to identify and correct problems, and how to maintain the batteries and solar panels. Grid Alternatives works with a local energy committee on a funds collecting system for cell phone and car battery charging for system maintenance. The panels are warranted for 25 years and many last about 50 years, but the Trojan deep-cycle flooded lead-acid batteries last 5-10 years depending on factors like maintenance and climate.
For this project, volunteers must pay $1,600 plus airfare to Nicaragua but can create their own fundraising page through the Crowdrise page. It covers housing, food, taxes, fees and travel in the country for 9 days with one of the nicest Managua hotels at the beginning and end of the trip. The rest of the time is with host families. Volunteers participate in cultural activities led by community members, visit nearby places as time allows, and “visit a natural reserve in a cloud forest, see the town of Esteli, and visit the graceful colonial city of Granada.”
For more information on this trip, other international trips, or opportunities within the United States, see the Grid Alternatives website for contacts. No Spanish or prior solar experience is required, there are no age limits, and there are opportunities for working with the children or other jobs than solar installation. Donations of solar equipment and money are also welcome.