In the rural West African city of Mbour, Senegal, more than 200 children go to school every day in a community with no electricity.
Naval Sea Systems Command engineers partnered with The Lamps, a nonprofit organization, as part of their "Let There Be Light" campaign, which aims to bring electrical power to regions of the world with no affordable supply.
Peter C. Cho, an electrical engineer with Naval Surface Warfare Center, Carderock Division's marine and aviation division; Bryant H. Kim, from NSWC, Indian Head Division; and Sungshin Kwak, from the Naval Research Laboratory dedicated their personal leave time Feb. 10-19 to visit the city, located about two hours from the capital of Dakar. They installed six solar panels, bringing a source of light to a community that had no means of electricity prior to their visit.
Mbour is just one of the many communities Cho and his fellow engineers have visited over the years. They install what Cho describes as a simple, solar electric power systems consisting of panels, batteries, an inverter and circuit breakers, which brings the community enough power to run indoor lights and small appliances. However, Cho noted, the communities they visit do not have the luxury of appliances of any kind.
"The need in that community, as well as all of the communities we do work in, is immense," Cho said. "Every trip I make, when I come back and arrive at the Dulles International Airport [in Washington], I marvel at what a blessed country the United States truly is.
“One thing that always amazes me is everywhere we go the children always seem to be very happy, even in their situation,” he continued. “In Mbour, the children go to school but have no shoes, no sandals, and in the summertime it gets so hot -- upwards of 120 degrees -- they cannot wear clothes. Their happiness is not measurable with materials."
Cho, who emigrated from South Korea, said one of the main reasons he makes these trips every year is because he was lucky enough to immigrate to the United States and receive a good education.
"The U.S. government educated me from bachelor's [degree] all the way to Ph.D,” he said. “I began my career at the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Newport, Rhode Island. I got together with some of my fellow engineers and figured out how we can pass on this great education and engineering experience to the next generation.
“One way we do this is by providing our skills and experience to the areas where there's no electricity available,” he said. “If we can give students even something as simple as light in their schoolhouse and it can improve their chances of succeeding, improve their chances of a better education, then I am happy. That is our motivation."
Team Has Grown
Cho said he worked with a team of four engineers when he started bringing solar energy to communities without electricity. Today, that team has grown to 13. The engineers not only travel on their personal leave time, but often use their own money to buy the solar panels. In some cases, he added, they have worked to subsidize funds from the U.S. Agency for International Development and SEED International, a Christian ministry out of Virginia.
"The biggest benefit to installing solar panels is they do not require a lot of maintenance," Cho said. "A lot of the communities we visit are close to the equator; sun is abundant. On average, two hours of sun will provide around eight hours of electricity."
Cho and his team also have installed solar panels in communities in Peru and Cambodia. Wherever they go, he said, being able to provide something as simple as indoor lighting, they leave knowing their work has improved the quality of life for the people of that community.