Students plan to install solar power at Indian orphanage

Sara Chinnaswamy’s visit to some orphanages in southern India has led to an effort by four Washington University School of Engineering & Applied Science students to provide a solar power system at a girls’ orphanage.

Sara Chinnaswamy

“Having a community or home that makes you feel comfortable is so important, and I want these girls to grow up in a place that makes them feel this way,” Chinnaswamy says. “When I discovered they needed electricity for their building, I felt compelled to help out.”

Chinnaswamy, a rising senior majoring in chemical engineering with a minor in writing, is spearheading the effort with a goal to raise about $12,000 by the end of July to purchase and install the solar power system at the Thalir orphanage in Coimbatore, India. Joining her are fellow Engineering students Alexandra Rodriguez-Beuerman, a senior majoring in chemical engineering; Amy Brummer, a senior majoring in chemical engineering with minors in energy engineering and nanoscale science and engineering; and Jakob Leonard, a senior majoring in chemical engineering. Chinnaswamy’s brother, Jay, a student at Northeastern University, is also on the team.

Chinnaswamy visited two orphanages in India late in 2013 with her aunt, who works for the Indian Red Cross. At the time, a new orphanage, designed for girls whose parents are ill and can no longer care for the children, was being built. Sara’s aunt told her that now that the building is completed and being used, they need more electricity. The orphanage has one solar array and one solar water heater, but it isn’t enough, and solar power systems are very expensive to install.

When she returned to St. Louis, she talked with her fellow students, and they quickly got to work researching options to meet the need.

“We looked at the entire electricity consumption for a variety of different appliances used on a daily and weekly basis and on the incoming solar radiation from the sun that the area receives,” she says.

The group estimated a need for 8-10 kW of instantaneous power from the solar array. They compared three types of solar panels and different types of batteries based on efficiency and cost. Their calculations led them to conclude the orphanage will need 34-50 solar panels, along with the installation hardware and the inverter that converts the direct current energy from the sun into electricity that appliances can use. Total costs, along with travel for the team, are estimated at about $12,000.

The team plans to get some lessons on how to install the system before they go, with help from the company from which they will purchase the panels, but plan to do much of the work themselves.

The team has created a fundraising page on indiegogo. Chinnaswamy has already raised some funds through some fundraisers during the spring semester. In addition, she is seeking a government subsidy through the company from which the panels will be purchased. The group also has a Facebook page.