Becoming a Sustainability Ambassador in Rural Panama

By Sheng Wu

A week before I was to go with a small team of students to electrify the homes of some of the families living in Chagres National Park, I was excited and nervous at the same time. Installing the solar panels and wiring wasn’t the scary part—I knew we could pull that off. I felt a bigger challenge would be to see if we could use the installation of the solar panel systems as a spark for building an appreciation for sustainability.

The trip was part of our 2007 award-winning EPA P3 project “Solar Photovoltaic System Design for a Remote Community in Panama.”
On the trip, we had the ambitious goal to install solar panel systems for five families in the village of Santa Librada, and then to teach them how to get the most out of their new systems—all in about a day and a half.

Thankfully, David and Maribel—friends from a village where our student group had previously installed systems—accompanied us to help. Besides their skilled hands, our two friends brought their knowledge and experience using the systems. This expertise, which they eagerly shared with the local community, proved to be as valuable as their help installing the panels.

With all the support the people of Santa Librada showed us, the five installations were finished in no time. When their kids were home from school, we taught families how the solar panel systems collect energy from the sun and store it in a battery. And at each house, we were happy to see David and Maribel talking to the families about the importance of sustainable behaviors such as conserving electricity and properly disposing of fluorescent light bulbs.

At the end of the day, everyone was satisfied with what had been accomplished. Community members gained hands-on experience helping install solar panel systems for their own homes. Our team learned how a culture of sustainability can be important in rural Panama. Children and adults alike explored what it means to “live sustainably.”

I’m confident that we successfully shared the importance of watching electricity use and going easy on the batteries so our partner families can financially sustain their solar panel systems.

About the Author: Sheng Wu is a chemical engineering major at Northwestern University (NU). He traveled with NU’s Engineers for a Sustainable World over spring break to work on a solar house electrification project in rural Panama.

Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in Greenversations are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.