Los Gatos Rotarians, volunteers and area students were recognized Monday evening by the Town Council for assembling and installing small solar lighting systems for underprivileged families in Colonet, Mexico earlier this month.
The group traveled south by car for two days beginning April 7—the start of spring break—and arrived in Colonet on Easter Sunday. They took material and equipment needed to build the units in trailers paying for their gas, lodging and food expenses.
A total of 18 youth built the power controller boards during three workshops at the Los Gatos United Methodist Church, said Los Gatos Morning Rotarian Doug McNeil.
Upon arrival, they installed five of them which are now lighting homes previously completely off-grid, McNeil explained.
"These kids are pretty amazing. They're from seventh grade up to juniors and seniors in high school. For the first time in their lives they built these circuit boards that provide solar power management," said McNeil.
A total of three youth from the team were the primary installers putting the solar panels on the roof, the LED lighting strips up and hooking up all the electronics to make the systems work, he added.
McNeil, who's the Earth Day chairman for the Los Gatos Morning Rotary Club, said he and others were looking in February for a project to help teach science, technology, engineering, math and sustainability to local youth.
The LGUMC members met with McNeil for coffee and began discussing the project.
"We used the slogan, it's science, sustainability and service," McNeil said, adding that in the world there's 1.5 billion people who don't know how to read and the_ World Health Organization_ has said they make $2.50 a day on average.
One third of their income goes to purchase kerosene and candles and two thirds of them end up contracting cancer due to the carcinogens in the Kerosene, he explained.
"We can raise the human development index by increasing the kilowatt hour per person per year. Giving them just a simple little bit of solar lighting can open pathways for them for education," McNeil said.
Partnering with LGUMC was natural as the faith group has already built 34 homes in Colonet, Mexico, McNeil said, and two have recently burnt down because its residents were using candles or kerosene to light them because they have no power.
"Why is it that the affluent part of the world can have access to photovoltaic solar systems by putting a 10-kilowatt array on the roof for $30,000?," asked McNeil.
"Why can't we provide renewable energy to the masses and those who are less privileged? We've proved that for 10 cups of premium coffee, you can buy a one-foot-square the solar panel, the 12-volt battery and the charge controller board and LED with high output," he continued.
In eight days the group made the first working solar lighting system model and 60 days later they had taken a Los Gatos community youth-built project to Colonet and expanded it internationally.
McNeil said he received an email last week from LGUMC member Pete Taylor, who travelled with the group that read, "The lights are on in Colonet."
The system lights a room for three hours every night and the charge on the battery lasts three nights, he said.
Ten kits were built and their cost is around $150 a piece, but McNeil thinks building them in volume in the future can reduce the price.
Part of the funds to build them came from LGUMC, a private donor and the Los Gatos Morning Rotary Club, McNeil said.
On April 22, during the 42nd anniversary of Earth Day, LGUMC will have a Lighting for Literacy booth and banner with a small display unit at the church's front lawn so the public can see what it does first-hand.
Taylor said the solar lighting system idea is the brainchild of retired IBM engineer Jess Salem, a Cupertino resident who attends LGUMC.
Taylor added the program is being tested so that hopefully it can be expanded to a larger segment of youth and volunteers in the country.
"Putting together circuit boards here is probably pretty boring, but when we got to Colonet and the youth installed them and saw they actually lit up the homes, they became energized and took ownership of the project," Taylor said.