United Solar Initiative: Where We Started, Where We Are Now, and Where We Want to go

   11th Jul 2016
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

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