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Friday, April 19, 2024

Program for International Energy Technologies develops sustainable solutions

It’s hardly a secret that some underdeveloped communities around the world lack basic necessities that many take for granted: running water, electricity and lighting.

The Program for International Energy Technologies (PIET) at UC Davis has been helping to tackle this persistent global issue right here on campus since its development in 2009. Created as a unit of the university’s Energy Efficiency Center by Kurt Kornbluth, a UC Davis graduate with a doctorate in mechanical engineering, the program aims to create sustainable and efficient energy solutions for local clients in developing countries.

“People travel to other countries and see the pollution and the traffic, and are glad to get away from it when they return home,” said Kornbluth, director of PIET. “What they don’t realize is, that’s the future for everyone — it’s just happening faster there. We’re looking at it right now.”

PIET is a completely project-based program, connecting teams of motivated students with foreign clients with specific needs. Typically, five to six projects are taken on at a time, ranging from finding alternate means of charcoal production in Uganda to increasing agricultural output with solar fruit dryers in Chile. Students can take on projects in one of two classes, D-Lab I and D-Lab II, which are offered in the winter and spring.

“D-Lab I students provide the feasibility assessment,” said Bryan Pon, PIET’s program manager who is also pursuing a doctorate in geography. “Clients will come to us with a problem, and the students serve as consultants and work to see which options are best.”

In D-Lab II, on the other hand, students build prototypes and install them on campus so they can test them before going abroad to conduct field research. Despite the seemingly technical nature of the course, graduate students and upper division undergraduate students of all majors are eligible to enroll in both courses.

“Kurt emphasizes four ‘lenses of sustainability’ — environmental, financial, social and technical,” said Jessica Myles, an international agriculture development graduate student working on developing drip irrigation systems in India. “The four dimensions emphasize the range of skills that are integral to the project.”

For this reason, students pursuing degrees such as community and regional development, business and international relations can find a way to contribute to the D-Lab.

“And, ideally, we’d have an ecologist, anthropologist and a translator,” Myles said. “It’s particularly useful, especially in development projects, when people specialize in one thing but are also competent in other things.”

The dynamic teams working together in D-Lab I and II address needs brought to their attention by clients, who become their local partners in the target area. For example, Myles and her colleagues are working with an organization called Mera Gao Power (MGP) to make drip irrigation accessible and affordable to farmers growing vegetable crops in Central Uttar Pradesh, India.

“Drip irrigation systems are super efficient at applying water,” Myles said. “They will apply 85 to 90 percent of the water you want where you want it. So if you want a field to get an inch of water, you can give it 1.1 inches. Flood irrigation, which is what they’re using now, is only 50 percent efficient, meaning you’ll have to buy twice as much water to get the application you want.”

On a recent trip to India, the team talked to farmers cultivating horticultural crops about installing the new technology, finding a spectrum of awareness. Some farmers had been previously exposed to it and had begun experimenting with it themselves, and some had never heard of it at all. Now, Myles and her team are planning to set up a demonstration farm to illustrate the effectiveness of drip irrigation.

“This way, we can show them what we have and they could teach us about things we haven’t considered,” Myles said. “I’m big on getting feedback from farmers on the ground, as they are the stakeholders. We can troubleshoot together.”

Meanwhile, Pon is working on making solar lighting available in homes in lower-middle-class communities in Zambia.

“Most of our target customers live in small cinder block houses, with poured cement or dirt floors and a corrugated metal roof,” Pon said. “They make $2 to $5 a day and spend $4 to $8 a month on kerosene lamps or candles to light their homes.”

The proposed solution is to offer small lights powered by solar panels the size of a credit card that emit twice the amount of light of a candle. Through partnership with Zambia’s Disacare Wheelchair Center, Pon’s group was able to offer the solar-powered light, called the SMART Light, for $15 to $18. However, after conducting market research, they found that the price point was still too high to be affordable.

“There was a ton of demand; we just have to work on making it cheaper,” Pon said. “That’s a huge part of making it accessible.”

Generally, many organizations tackle this problem by finding outside funding via donations. However, both of these projects, like all D-Lab projects, aim to create business-based solutions in order to promote sustainability.

“Many people cringe when they hear the ‘for-profit’ part, but the idea isn’t to profit off of poor people,” Myles said. “The purpose is to create a financial mechanism that will make it more sustainable.”

Pon added that in the last 10 years, there has been a big shift from philanthropic-oriented projects to market-based.

“The thing is, everything that is donation-based will eventually run out,” he said.

PIET’s work seeks, in part, to promote economic development within its target communities, helping to combat the inequality that has been increasing across nations for decades.

“When we do work abroad, we’re not going to help out because we’re smart,” Kornbluth said. “We’re going because they can learn a little from us, but also because we can learn a little from them.”

LANI CHAN can be reached at features@theaggie.org.

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