Lighting communities through passion

Rebecca Watts
Friday 12 February 2016

Installing solar energy systems into rural Cambodian homes has brought hope and economic opportunities for locals, as REBECCA WATTS writes.

 

Seven out of 10 people in Cambodia live in rural areas with little or no access to grid electricity.

Access to electricity underpins all areas of development. It is hard for communities to thrive without it.

It is in this situation that my ANU engineering and commerce degree can be useful.

Last January, I spent time in a beautiful Secret Beach community in rural Cambodia on the Engineers Without Borders (EWB) Design Summit.

The community has no electricity or running water and the local economy depends on fishing and agriculture.

Women peel crabs and earn just US$2.50 per day.

Inspired by my experience and motivated to make a difference, I devoted my honours thesis to creating a solar energy project with EWB in Cambodia.

Three years earlier, like thousands of other engineering students across Australia, I took part in the EWB Challenge during my first undergraduate year.

EWB is a non-government organisation that runs education programs in Australia and works with communities in disadvantaged circumstances.

Due to my Major in Renewable Energy Systems at ANU, I was particularly struck by the opportunity for solar energy technologies in rural Cambodia.

The country has little or no existing electricity infrastructure and also faces the highest electricity costs in the region, particularly in rural areas.

With the cost of solar energy technologies decreasing, there is huge potential for off-grid solar energy solutions to support low-carbon, sustainable development.

 

I studied in an area I'm passionate about

The increased access to lighting has also increased work and study hours and increased safety at night.

Collaborating with a Cambodian non-government organisation, I returned to Secret Beach in mid-2015.

We installed two solar home systems and ran a solar energy education program with the community.

Using the skills and knowledge developed at ANU, I undertook research in an area I am passionate about and applied it to the community that had invited me into their households.

Replacing expensive, emissions intensive and dangerous kerosene lamps and rechargeable car batteries, the solar home systems have been used to power lights and appliances.

This change has increased productivity and reduced health risks, emissions and costs for the users.

The increased access to lighting has also increased work and study hours and increased safety at night.

The project was successful, not because of the technical aspects of the solar home system, but because of the community engagement throughout the entire process.

A sense of ownership within the community

As Project Facilitator for EWB's Appropriate Technology initiative, I am working in a team of engineers and professionals based in Cambodia.

The design began with consultation and the project grew from within the community.

Residents installed the systems, which created a sense of ownership and helped build local capacity and then participated in an education program.

Increasing access to solar energy will translate short-term benefits into long-term economic growth, poverty reduction and environmental sustainability.

The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive and I was selected by EWB to return to Cambodia and assist with the rolling out of solar home systems throughout the entire community.

As Project Facilitator for EWB's Appropriate Technology initiative, I am working in a team of engineers and professionals based in Cambodia.

From bio-digesters, to rainwater tanks and professional skills development training, the team is working on innovative, appropriate and sustainable projects and programs with local Cambodian partners.

There are similar EWB teams working in Vietnam and Timor Leste.

Together we work towards a common vision to create a world where everyone has access to the services they need to lead a life of opportunity, free from poverty.

Rebecca Watts studied a Bachelor of Engineering (Honours) at the ANU Research School of Engineering.

 

Image gallery

Updated:  8 September 2015/Responsible Officer:  Dean, CECS/Page Contact:  CECS Marketing