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Bringing Solar to Belize

Bringing Solar to Belize
Jim Schwai tells his story of how AltE has helped do wonders using photovoltaics for the people living in a small, Mayan Village called San Lucas, Belize.
written by Danielle Auger
Two room school, grades1-4 and 5-8

Photovoltaics (solar electricity) are being used more and more all over the world. Tucked away in remote southern Belize is a Mayan Village called San Lucas. This village, with a population of about 115 people, does not have running water or electricity. It is here that solar is being used to power a laptop computer and printer in a library for the two-room schoolhouse that holds grades 1-8.

Wiring solar panel on roof of library



Jim Schwai became involved with this project through St. Joseph’s Church. Their sister parish is located in San Lucas, Belize and Schwai has been spending two weeks a year there for the past three years. During his last trip down there, he helped install the photovoltaic system he had purchased through AltE. This was a very exciting time for the people of San Lucas because it was the first of many steps to improve their educational facilities. “Education is very important there,” Jim explains. Right now 39 of the 115 people in the village are attending grades 1-8. One in ten goes on to high school. “The goal is to improve education so that all these kids can go to high school,” Jim says.

Three girls at computer, plus trainer

Jim called in and spoke with James at The Alternative Energy Store proposing the project. Jim purchased the Photovoltaics Design and Installation Manual to familiarize himself with the components necessary for a photovoltaic system. They worked together over a long period on the system design to make sure everything would work. The components had to fit in Jim’s suitcase to be delivered to Belize. “Size and weight were major design factors,” James says. Jim and James both agreed that running the computer off of its optional 12V DC/DC adapter would benefit the system by eliminating an inverter and the inefficiencies that go along with it. They also selected the charge controller, the Morningstar Prostar 15A with display, because it continuously cycled through battery voltage, PV (Photovoltaic) current, and load current. Prior to the trip, this enabled Jim to test the system at his home in Wisconsin, not only for the system design, but also for suitcase fitment. “Once we knew the system would work with Wisconsin solar insolation, it would definitely work out in Belize.” James explains.

The solar electric system installed on the library consists of one 20W, 12V PV Module, one charge controller with display, simple PV mounting system, circuit breakers, and batteries sized to fit the system.

Scooping last of Cahoon Cabbage Stew from cooking pot

The children of San Lucas have learned how to use the computer quickly. Jim talks about one particular experience involving one of the students, Natalia, with great enthusiasm. “She actually saw a computer for the first time and was able to type in ‘My name is Natalia.’ We showed her how to use the shift key to make capital letters and she wrote ‘My name is Natalia. I live in San Lucas. I am 15 years.’ She did this in half an hour.” Jim was amazed that having never seen a computer before in her life, she was able to use it right away.

On the last day of the project, a party was held to celebrate. Jim had cakes prepared and a Cahoon Cabbage Stew was served by some of the San Lucas residents. The Cahoon Cabbage comes from the heart of the Cahoon Palm and in San Lucas is considered the ultimate dinner.

Control panel mounted in library

Jim receives updates on how the students are doing from Matt, the Peace Corps volunteer that lives in the village. He tells Jim that the children are enjoying the computer and using it a lot. Some of the older children even use it after school hours. Initially, the system was designed for three hours of usage per day, but has become so popular among the students that it is pushing the limits of the current photovoltaic setup. The system wasn’t designed to power the laptop around the clock so Jim’s next project will be installing another PV module and battery to power a second computer. He also wants to put in some Direct Current LED lights over the computer. Jim is currently working on plans to upgrade the library system with design help from James. In the future, Jim would also like to “solarize” the church. He would like to power a keyboard to go with the five guitarists they have there and install some lighting for the seating area.

Completion of solar panel

All of us at AltE are proud to participate in the progress of this extraordinary project. Jim remains devoted to helping the people of San Lucas in any way that he can. “I think that’s where my calling is right now: to see what we can do.”

Check out some more of Jim's amazing photos of this project!
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