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USI board member Ed Witkin visited Kenya and Zambia in late February of this year to lead trainings for World Vision staff. They focused on installing solar panels on water pumps that were previously installed by World Vision in a few communities. Below are his accounts of his second day in Kenya. 

On day two of our training in Kenya, we decided to switch the schedule and go out to a water pumping site to give us time to review the system and critique the installation. The pump site, Enkejju Errap, was about 1 1/2 hours northeast of where we stayed in Namanga. The road was dirt and we crossed about 45 km of fairly flat land with low scrubs and many cows and goats being herded by their Maasai shepherds. When we arrived at the pump site, there were quite a few local Maasai men and women gathered around the water outlet. The overflow feeds into a large trough, which is used to water the cattle and goats.

The water tank is quite impressive, though we questioned why it needed to be so high up (and therefore more expensive), as the water only served one outlet and did not appear to be distributed to other locations. There was one broken module in the PV array, which possibly happened during transport, as the array is in an unpopulated area and it doesn’t seem likely that someone would have thrown a rock up there.


We found that, as in a system we saw in Ghana, the angle steel that protects the modules from theft is too wide and shades the edge of the cells, thus reducing the panel’s efficiency.

One of the main issues with all the PV systems we’ve seen here is that there is no monitoring, either on the PV side or the plumbing side. We are looking at remote monitoring equipment that is available for the system. Since cell phones are so prevalent, and cell service is excellent, this would be a logical improvement (and necessary for maintenance and troubleshooting). For the site we visited we have found that Lorentz has remote PV and water pumping monitoring which could keep track of array output and performance as well as water pipe pressure, flow rates, etc. There are cell phone apps for this system. Without any monitoring, and with the limited in-house PV experience, World Vision is currently in the dark about how the systems are performing. All they can really tell is if water is coming out the tap, but there’s no easy way of knowing if the tanks are full, if the pump is pumping efficiently and up to its desired specs, etc.


The local Maasai community is incredibly grateful for the water and are friendly and welcoming to visitors. So much so that they roasted a goat for us and welcomed us to stay and eat under their “free” dining area (under a large bush). Accepting their invitation was “fitting into their shoes” and it would have been quite rude not to accept their offer. There was plenty of laughter and taking of photos. Most of the local Maasai only spoke Swahili, which almost all of the class participants also speak. I remembered a song I’d learned about Kenya in Swahili when I last visited in 1984 (the dark ages). I’d forgotten some of the words, so I had a few of them sing it while I recorded their singing.


An interesting observation I had is that the Maasai women wear beautiful beads and both women and men tend to have very large holes in their earlobes to hang various beads and jewelry. I met a group of women who were selling their wares and noticed they are part of a large cooperative of women who are making their beadwork available to tourists both locally and via the internet.




Article and photos by: Ed Witkin

Edited by: Eric Fitch


President Trump has been a long-time climate change denier. We know this from his rants during his campaign, his tweets —his most famous being that the global climate change is just a “Chinese hoax”—, and from Trump’s writings in his book titled Crippled America. I’m glad our President has the environmental knowhow to make an anti-climate change claim with such certainty! Not to mention, according to The Express Tribune, China is becoming world leader in clean energy investments. One would expect a businessman like Donald Trump to strive to be a leader in our future energy economy. Instead, he wants to invest in the dying coal industry. Contrary to popular belief, coal is not seeing its demise due to environmental policy, but rather due to the growth of the natural gas industry.

Anyway, what does this mean for solar and other climate change policies?

Although President Trump’s new budget has cut the EPA’s budget by an unprecedented 31% and eliminated the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy (ARPA-E), state governments are still holding true to their commitment to clean energy. Environmental responsibility is now reallocated to the states, and it will be the accumulation of our local governments to uphold their advancement towards a low-carbon future. States and cities are big players in curbing climate change and control a majority of the legal and policy power regarding these efforts. For example, the state public utility commissions regulate investor-owned electric utilities, state legislatures set up portfolio standards, and they decide on building codes. Below are some examples of policies that are expected to thrive and survive under the Trump Administration.

  1. The Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, or RGGI: This is a cap-and-trade policy that limits the amount of CO2 emissions in nine of its member states. This cooperative effort includes Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, Rhode Island, and Vermont. The RGGI CO2 cap declines 2.5 percent each year from 2015 to 2020.
  1. Renewable Energy Portfolio Standards (RPS): 29 states have RPS which requires utilities to sell a specified percentage or specific amount of renewable electricity. Iowa was the first state to implement an RPS in 1983 and Hawaii has the most aggressive at 100% renewables by 2045. These policies support the renewable energy market and help diversity the overall energy mix. States with no standard or target goal include many in the southeast region.
  1. Net Metering Policies: 44 States have net metering policies, which financially incentivizes the switch to renewable energy. These types of policies allow distributed generation customers to sell excess electricity to a utility at a retail rate and receive credit on their utility bill. In New York, for example, people who have residential-scale solar installed will have their excess energy stored in a bank credit system. People can pull from that system throughout the subsequent months if needed. At the end of the year, if there is leftover net excess generation (NEG), their utility will pay their customer according to the amount that is leftover.
  1. La Plata Electric Association’s (LPEA) Renewable Energy Credit in Colorado: The accumulation of small policies like these can go a long way! This policy applies to solar photovoltaics, wind, and hydroelectric and is scalable to include commercial, residential, industrial, and federal sectors. For residential, the incentive is $16/kW for a maximum system size of 10 kW. Basically, customers of LPEA who have a solar array will be paid $16/kW of excess electricity generated by their system.
  1. What will happen to North Carolina’s Investment Tax Credit?: Homeowners in North Carolina who install a solar system on their home are eligible for a 30 percent dollar-for-dollar tax credit up until 2019. This program is designed to gradually decrease credits from 2019 to 2022. The credit applies to technologies such as PV, solar water heating, wind and others until 2019, when it will then gradually decrease to 10%.

Although the Trump Administration is actively trying to rip apart the strides made towards clean energy, the accumulation of states still hold the power to curb climate change. Furthermore, there isn’t a question of whether or not renewables will take a stronger hold in our energy market, but rather a question of when. In addition to environmental gains, switching over to renewables will be smarter economically, is better for energy security, and we will allow us to be less dependent on foreign oil.

The move to green energy seems like the smart move to me.

Article By: Andie Migden


Seeing a lot of people show up to support the great cause of USI’s Lug-a-Jug event on an early Saturday morning was a pleasant surprise, it showed that a lot of people care.

I believe that making people empathize is one of the most effective ways to raising awareness on issues like this. Here’s the main reason I was very pleased with the event format and USI’s mission overall: At some point down the road, I want to work at the United Nations Office in Nairobi, Kenya because I can be more effective and practical once I’m on the grounds where I would closely observe the culture and see what people are actually going through. Similarly, USI is represented in various locations in Africa and the Lug-a-Jug event was a great way to convey the message of what they’ve been facing & how we as current residents of the Triangle Area, could help provide what the people really need. For some, it’d be easy to just donate the $20 and not even show up to the event, but seeing how much it takes out of you to walk the 3K with empty 5-gallon jugs and making your way back with that precious water makes you appreciate something you take for granted every single day. That mindset is the difference-maker in making people volunteer & donate more down the road, and spread the word.

A lot of people, including myself, were exhausted by the end of the event and one thing should be clear: even though the solar panels are a great start & will indeed make people’s life easier in Africa, it still isn’t the solution. Not having to manually pump water from wells is going to save time and energy but they still have to walk long distances to have access to the most basic need of mankind. Thus, we need to keep spreading the word and get to work. 319 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa don’t have access to reliable drinking water sources[1] and even 620 million people live without electricity[2]. For people who want to get involved to any extent, there are a lot of opportunities to volunteer, donate or invest.

I want to thank USI for their efforts in such an important cause. Let’s aim even higher!

Article by: Serkan Erdem



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As some of you may know, United Solar Initiative has been working on a partnership with World Vision to provide solar powered water pumps to rural communities. USI not only donated solar panels, but also facilitated training in the transportation and installation of the solar powered systems. The training occurred over four days of June 2016 with members from different World Vision offices and the West Africa Regional Office led by Mr Edwin Witkin and Mr. Jay Peltz.
The participants learned about all aspects of the solar water pump systems. This training focused on design, installation, and troubleshooting. Proper transportation of the systems was found quite useful in the rough terrain.
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With the team armed with knowledge, they went out and installed 8 solar water pumping systems across Ghana, Africa to provide the communities with access to clean water. Overall, 108 panel were used.
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If you would like to help United Solar Initiative’s efforts to make a difference in Africa, please donate to the cause at
Post Written By Karen Klepacz
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Would be the world’s largest roof-mounted solar installation

United Solar Initiative has recently committed to donate a 13.3 kw solar array for the Hospitality House in Boone, N.C. This is the largest system USI has plans to install to date.

Zach Sprau, a graduate student at Appalachian State University and project manager for USI, led the initial efforts for this installation with Jack Schaufler, an ASU graduate and USI board member.

Earlier in 2016, Schaufler mentioned to Sprau that USI was seeking to do more local projects, especially in the Boone area. Sprau’s long-time friend Jordan Duke is the facilities manager at the Hospitality House, so he approached Duke about the possibility of installing solar on the shelter. Duke was interested, and soon after he initially met with Sprau and Schaufler, USI conducted a basic site assessment with help from Collaborative Solar’s president Landon Pennington. After Schaufler graduated, he began working for Strata Solar in Chapel Hill, N.C. and Sprau has been managing the project since August 2016.

Sprau has continued to form a relationship between USI and Collaborative Solar throughout the process of the project. He hopes the installation will be completed sometime in the spring of 2017, but no specific dates have been set.

Pennington will teach a class on photovoltaics in the spring at ASU and his students will help install the system. This will not only give the students hands-on experience with solar installations, but it will reduce labor costs for USI and the Hospitality House and help to strengthen ties between all the organizations involved.

The Hospitality House is a transitional living facility staffed by 20 individuals who work to house and assist people struggling with homelessness in Boone. They have 8 beds for women and 16 beds for men in their emergency shelter, 29 beds for transitional and family housing, as well as rooms for permanent supportive housing. During the winter they expand and can accommodate up to 94 people, and try to avoid turning anyone away by setting up additional cots, if needed.

Duke emphasizes the importance of helping individuals pursue independence through the Hospitality House’s programs. Clients meet with social workers during the week so they can be assisted with a variety of needs.

“We’ve got to work with people where they are,” Duke said.

“Housing First” is the primary principle that staff at the Hospitality House believe in. Through meeting the need of adequate housing first, clients are better equipped to accomplish long-term goals, such as finding a stable job or moving into their own home. The “housing first” mentality contributes to the 70-75 percent success rate that the emergency shelter sees with its clients.

Duke is a proponent of renewable energy and thinks installing solar will help demonstrate to the Boone community that the Hospitality House is making an effort to be environmentally sustainable. The Hospitality House will cover a portion of the installation costs, but the solar panels will help during peak load hours and reduce the shelter’s energy bill to its utility provider.

The system USI installs will generate over $1920 in annual savings, which will allow the Hospitality House to provide more services for its clients. Duke said money generated from utility savings will go toward housing application fees, birth certificate fees, toiletries, or other financial or tangible needs the clients face.

USI is excited to partner with Collaborative Solar, ASU, and the Hospitality House for this project.

“This project is a great opportunity to put USI’s mission into practice by partnering with non-profits, the university, the solar industry, and local business to benefit those in need in the high country,” Sprau said.

This photo shows where part of the new solar array will be installed. The existing solar panels are part of the Hospitality House's solar thermal system.

This photo shows where part of the new solar array will be installed. The existing solar panels are part of the Hospitality House’s solar thermal system.

Article and photo by: Lydia Odom

Suni Solar installers setting up a 300-watt system on San Antonio de Upa, a primary school in Matagalpa, Nicaragua.

My journey with United Solar Initiative began in January of 2015 when Alex Wilhelm, founder and co-president of USI, and Charlie Egan, project development coordinator of USI, gave a presentation to my class about what USI is. They spoke about the non-profit’s plan to help replace dangerous kerosene lamps used in remote communities in Nicaragua with a cleaner solution: solar energy. They passed a piece of paper around the room and asked students to provide their names and email addresses if they wanted to become part of the team. United Solar Initiative’s mission, as well as Charlie and Alex’s passion and dedication to USI, were more than enough to make me and about eight other students want to join USI as its first wave of UNC volunteers!

In our first meeting, I learned that the non-profit was still in its infancy and had tremendous momentum and potential for future growth. Its leadership consisted of students from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Appalachian State University, and other professionals of various backgrounds. By that time, USI had already completed four successful solar installations with support from Strata Solar, LLC., Sisterhood Communities of San Ramon, and Appalachian State’s Department of Technology and Environmental Design. The new team and I were given more background on how USI got started, what its mission is, and how important our help was to them. The story went something like this:

United Solar Initiative began in early 2013 with only three volunteers. Alex Wilhelm, Steven Thomsen, and Ed Witkin used their knowledge about the harmful effects of kerosene lamps, their awareness about the problems that developing communities faced without access to electricity, and their passion to find a solution in order to create USI’s mission.

Co-founder Steven Thomsen and Project Development Coordinator Charlie Egan stand in front of USI’s first completed project on a primary school in Matagalpa, Nicaragua.

Co-founder Steven Thomsen and Project Development Coordinator Charlie Egan stand in front of USI’s first completed project on a primary school in Matagalpa, Nicaragua.

United Solar Initiative concentrated its first efforts on a project in a remote village in Nicaragua and successfully installed a small-scale solar panel system on a school. Installing the system made the volunteers realize that they were resolving a bigger issue than just eliminating the need to use dangerous kerosene lamps.  Solar not only gave this community electricity for the first time, but it also connected them to the world for the first time. Now that the school had electricity, it closed education gaps for children, it allowed for phones to be charged, and it allowed for job trainings to be held once the sun went down.

All smiles here: The students at Verapaz Primary School in Verapaz, Nicaragua are enjoying their newly-solarized classroom.

All smiles here: The students at Verapaz Primary School in Verapaz, Nicaragua are enjoying their newly-solarized classroom.

We were all captivated by the impact United Solar Initiative had on these communities and by the dedication that the people sitting around us had towards its cause. Our newly expanded team was ambitious from the start. We all focused on different tasks and met weekly to discuss and collaborate new ideas and to set goals for the organization. That summer we concentrated on branding the organization. We built recognition and broadened our audience through revamping our website and being active on our various social media outlets.

During that time, USI expanded to welcome Brandon Durham and Jack Schaufler to its team. With help from its various support groups, United Solar Initiative was able to lead two more projects in remote communities in Nicaragua. USI acted as a supervisor for local companies Suni Solar and SONATI to ensure seamless installation throughout the entire process. USI completed a total of six projects that ranged in size from 240-watt systems to 500-watt systems, depending on the size of the roof and the needs of the community.

Two installers from local company Suni Solar work to set up this 250-watt PV system on a primary school in San Jose, Nicaragua.

Two installers from local company Suni Solar work to set up this 250-watt PV system on a primary school in San Jose, Nicaragua.

Throughout the following year, United Solar Initiative also launched a few new campaigns. The Humans of Solar campaign and the High School Ambassador program. Humans of Solar features business leaders, people in the solar and energy industry, and people who have solar. Every other week, we would post an interview and a photo of our featured Human of Solar. This was a huge success and we reached upwards of 5,000 people! Our High School Ambassador program allowed local high schools to get involved in fundraising for USI and allowed its students to take on leadership roles.

Recently, United Solar Initiative’s new partnership with World Vision opened up the opportunity for solar to help with another important issue: alleviating water poverty. World Vision is the leading nongovernmental provider of clean water. They reach one new person with clean water every 30 seconds. Through our partnership, United Solar Initiative will solarize water pumps by replacing the traditional hand-crank and diesel-powered pumps with solar-powered pumps. The partnership is bringing clean water to communities across Ghana, Africa this summer. Once these efforts are finished, 100 new solarized water pumps will be built and it will give 80,000 people access to clean water. That is something truly remarkable.

This past spring, we were fortunate to have the opportunity to interview William Kamkwamba, author and speaker from Malawi, Africa, who at the age of 14 taught himself how to build the windmill that would power his home. He spoke about the dire need to resolve the issue of water poverty in his community and all over sub-Saharan Africa. Kamkwamba expressed how our efforts with World Vision will save tons of women and children from walking 6 kilometers every day in order to get water. The solar-powered pumps allow women and children to have more free time to either go to school or help out with other daily tasks. Solarizing water pumps, therefore, helps people directly by giving them access to clean water and indirectly by freeing up more time.

William Kamkwamba, author of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, gladly agreed to be interviewed for our Lug-a-Jug promotional video and explained the importance of alleviating water poverty.

William Kamkwamba, the author of The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, gladly agreed to be interviewed for our Lug-a-Jug promotional video and explained the importance of alleviating water poverty.

My co-volunteers and I are forever proud to be a part of an organization that gives so much and works so hard to make sure that everything is done in the right way. Now with new co-presidents Lydia Odom and Shep Byles, I look forward to seeing where USI is headed. United Solar Initiative strives to make it known that issues of energy and water poverty are becoming more important to resolve every day. Now that the cost of solar has significantly gone down, there’s no reason why people in underdeveloped and remote communities shouldn’t be connected to the rest of the world. There’s no reason why people in Africa shouldn’t have access to clean water powered by clean energy.  United Solar Initiative aims to alleviate these issues one panel at a time.

Article By: Andie Migden, USI Volunteer

9/11 Memorial in Pittsboro, NC

When the town of Pittsboro got a piece of the World Trade Center, they got a much larger piece than they anticipated. The large steel beam was delivered in 2011 by a semi-trailer and it was set up as a memorial to the attacks of September 11, 2001. The beam is angled towards its original home in New York City.

However, as it sat there was something missing from the memorial: lighting. Chatham County had difficulty fundraising the necessary funds to completely finish the project. This is where United Solar Initiative stepped in to provide lighting to this somber reminder of the attacks. USI used donations from various sources to set up a few solar panels that power four lights at the memorial site. These lights and a battery ensure that the flag behind the memorial is lit continuously, while the memorial itself is lit until late evening.

Help from United Solar Initiative enabled the memorial to take another step towards completion. Companies donated their materials and money, and solar workers donated their time to help shine a light on the great sacrifices made by the firefighters during the attacks of 9/11.


Article By: Karen Klepacz

Young boy at water pump / well. Samba Diallo, age 7. Sansacoto Village.

United Solar Initiative could not have found a better fit. When World Vision originally reached out to United Solar Initiative, members of USI knew good things were in store.

World Vision, the largest nonprofit provider of clean water in the world, is making strides to expand its efforts in drinking water provision. The organization recently extended its already bold commitments to provide clean water in the coming years. Currently reaching a new person with water every 30 seconds, by 2020 the organization hopes to provide clean water to a new person every 10 seconds. And by 2030, it plans to provide water to every person in every community that it serves.

For World Vision, an expansion of these efforts means an expansion of its partnerships in order to do its work both more efficiently as well as on a larger scale. That’s where a partnership with USI is brought into the picture.

Over the next several years, United Solar Initiative will solarize 100 World Vision water pump systems in 10 different countries, the majority to be installed in West African countries. The average solar panel system, at 2500 watts, will provide the energy needed to give water access to between 1500 and 3000 people, depending on the community size and pump system type.

Keith Kall, senior director of strategic partnerships with World Vision, spoke to the nature of the relationship.

“Some of these communities where we work are off-grid, or if they are near or on-grid, the grid is really unreliable. So to have a solar company or solar-focused nonprofit is a great partner to be associating with,” he said.

A partnership with an organization like United Solar Initiative helps World Vision to better its potential as a water provider as USI offers solar energy solutions. Kall noted that through such a partnership, where USI provides solar panels and installation expertise, “that really allows us to use the money that we do have to go farther.”

Steven Thomsen, co-founder and vice president of USI, believes that the partnership with World Vision “lets us both play to our strengths.” The partnership “allows us to focus on our core competency,” deploying solar power in developing countries, and allows USI to “start learning about clean water (provision),” he said.

Thomsen attended the World Vision WASH conference, the Water and Sanitation Hygiene community of practice meeting, hosted in Ethiopia in May of 2015. He described that the conference brought together World Vision’s partners, donors, and supporters from across the world in order to plan a scaling up of World Vision’s efforts. He was not only impressed by the organization’s ambitious new goals for 2030, but also the different approaches its partners are taking to aid in solutions to the water crisis, citing new water tablets as well as the creation of a Sesame Street Character that addresses the importance of clean and safe drinking water access.

“There’s so much more to solving (the crisis) than putting in wells,” Thomsen said.

This certainly holds true of Kall’s outlook, who points to water as a key aspect of a country’s development. World Vision’s model in these communities, in most situations, is water pump installations that are paralleled by providing other development efforts — education, economic development, and health programs. While this model looks different for every community, he notes that “everything is in fact predicated on water.”

Without the water that these communities need, Kall explained that underperformance becomes a reoccurring motif in terms of meeting economic development, education, and health goals. When women and children have to spend time each day walking for drinking water, “a large part of your population (is) not engaged in economic development work… and a lot of young children don’t go to school,” he said.

“Eighty percent of diseases are water-related in the developing world, so any type of health interventions will underperform as well without access to clean drinking water,” he said.

It is Kall’s personal belief that these “interventions are accelerated once clean drinking water is available.”

This water crisis is an issue United Solar Initiative originally came into contact with when completing its first projects in San Ramone, Nicaragua in the summer of 2014. Thomsen recalled his experiences there.

“We asked the community members, ‘What are the biggest needs you see on a daily basis?’ One of their first responses was, ‘We need access to clean water.’ So we thought, okay, how can we use electricity to help bring clean water to people?” he said.

USI had been hoping to address the water crisis issue since this encounter but was unsure how to overcome the barriers put in place by the complexity of the water pump installation process. This question was answered by the offer extended by World Vision — a perfect way for USI to create this shift in its approach.

“Ultimately our goal is to provide electricity to people living without it, and that can take a lot of different forms… Our core mission remains the same, but what that electricity is being used for is changing,” Thomsen explained.

Co-founder and President Alex Wilhelm expressed his enthusiasm for what the relationship has to offer, noting that World Vision is “giving us the perfect way to go about our mission.” He is excited particularly by the project’s “scalability and the ability to impact thousands of people.”

Wilhelm hopes that these projects will mark the foundation of a long-term relationship. In such a relationship, USI hopes to be a part of many more projects beyond the initial 100 that have been outlined, perhaps to become the partners solely responsible for World Vision’s solar installations.

Kall explained that World Vision’s 2020 and 2030 goals would be unattainable without good partners. As United Solar Initiative becomes key to helping attain these goals, it will be allowed to expand its horizons, redefining what it means to provide solar energy solutions. Through this partnership, United Solar Initiative’s work has been given more purpose, as it hopes to create a larger impact on the developing world. Throughout the relationship, the organization hopes to see its empowerment of developing communities through solar energy come to fruition.

Article By: Meredith Ratledge


For the majority of Americans, living entirely without access to electricity is a thought that almost never comes to mind. In a country where livelihoods revolve around the energy grid, going without access to devices as simple as light bulbs seems unfathomable. But for 1.2 billion people on Earth, access to energy is not an option. When the sun goes down, people are forced to either stop their activities for the day or resort to dangerous alternatives to energy, such as kerosene lanterns or open flames.

Alex Wilhelm, a senior business major at UNC-Chapel Hill, recognized this problem and decided it was time to make a change. Ed Witkin, a member of Strata Solar LLC, heard about Wilhelm’s idea and connected him with Steven Thomsen, who also worked for Strata. The three men, realizing their shared visions, founded United Solar Initiative.

In May 2014, USI confronted energy poverty head-on when it launched its pilot project in the region of Matagalpa, Nicaragua. USI installed panels on an art center and community center in a town called San Ramón, Nicaragua. The solar panels benefit the students and the adults of the community because it allows for meetings and education to take place outside of typical daylight hours.

In December 2014, Thomsen and USI Project Development Coordinator Charlie Egan helped install solar panels on two schools in a mountainous region outside of San Ramón. The schools, Mina Verde 2 and San Antonio de Upa, received panels so that community members could use the building at night, similar to the first project.


Don Nelson Soza, a member of the community outside of Managua, realized the full benefits of the solar system.

“This system has a good impact for us,” he said. “Now, we have meetings at nights. …This building is a very important community center in this city.”

Wilhelm said one of the goals of the solar panels is to enable adults to take classes at night because they are not afforded the chance to do so during the day.

“They’re always working during the day and don’t have the opportunity to learn like their children do,” Wilhelm said.

Wilhelm was drawn to Nicaragua because of a connection in Durham, North Carolina. Sister Communities of San Ramón, Nicaragua, a nonprofit that focuses on developing education projects, partnered with USI for its first project. SCSRN built the schools that received solar panels from USI.

In addition to its partnership with SCSRN, USI partnered with a solar company based in Nicaragua called Suni Solar. Suni Solar installed the panels, while USI oversaw the process from start to finish. The partnership with Suni Solar is integral to USI’s mission of uniting the solar industry and addressing global issues of energy poverty. USI also has local partners that make its work possible. Strata Solar LLC and Schletter Inc. donated money and materials to USI for the projects in Nicaragua.

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The solar panel systems are designed to be sustainable and long-lasting. Each system should last 25 years and the batteries have to be replaced every five years. Also, each system produces enough energy to power 16 LED light bulbs, which sufficiently provides light for the schools. Wilhelm is proud of the work USI accomplished in the two communities in Nicaragua.

“I think we can do more in a developing country with one solar panel than we can in the U.S., and I think that’s pretty special,” he said.

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Whereas a couple of solar panels in the U.S. would not be able to generate enough power for one family, 300 watts of power can sustain an entire community in Nicaragua.

“When we installed solar in the first  two communities, it was like an entire event, everyone was involved,” Wilhelm said. “I think the communities really understand how big of an impact these panels can have.”

He admitted that he was initially worried about how successful the panels would be. He knew that security could potentially be an issue, and was concerned that the panels would be taken shortly after being installed. However, to his excitement, Wilhelm’s expectations were incorrect.

“One of our concerns was theft,” he said, “but the community members understood that this material was so valuable to them that they protected it themselves.”

Wilhelm and other members of USI continue to follow up with the communities in Nicaragua on a quarterly basis. They ensure that the panels are functioning properly, and if there are concerns, they let Suni Solar know so they can be addressed. Wilhelm considers the projects in Nicaragua a huge success and is pleased with the difference the panels have made.

“We’re able to apply technology that is picking up in the U.S., but in developing countries, it’s making more of an impact,” he said.

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Written by: Lydia Odom