An engineering-student design team at Virginia Tech is creating a photovoltaic system to provide a medical clinic in Kenya with a desperately needed source of power. Generous donations from three companies – IBM, Renesola and Grundfos Pumps – working together with the Virginia Tech Foundation, have provided the students on the Renewable Energy Senior Design Team with about 50 percent of the materials necessary to create the system.

The Getongoroma Medical Clinic, built and operated by Foundation Ministries of Kenya, currently provides much needed medical treatment and education for thousands in the surrounding area. The addition of electric power will significantly expand the capability of the clinic to serve the local residents. Electric power will provide clean well water, refrigerated vaccines, testing mechanisms for HIV and other diseases, and other related needs for medical purposes.

“Currently, the clinic cannot offer emergency treatment at night or keep vaccines for more than a few hours. Additionally, the clinic cannot provide any major medical services, such as testing or treatment for AIDS, malaria and dengue fever, three very large problems in this area,” explains Mark Showalter, a Virginia Tech graduate of mechanical engineering. As the assistant adviser to the team project, he adds, “The nearest electrical grid is a 45-minute drive from the clinic.”

The design team selected solar power because the remote location does have an abundance of sunlight. “This renewable energy was deemed necessary, as imported fuels would have to be carried over 50 kilometers of rough terrain,” Showalter says.

Showalter credited IBM with donating silicon wafers, the material used in making solar panels.  Renesola, a Chinese company, then refined the silicone and paid another company to make the panels. Grundfos Pumps, a Danish manufacturer of pumps, donated the ground water pump to work in conjunction with the solar panels.

The student team now will finish the assembly of the photovoltaic system and ship the entire installation to the medical clinic in Kenya. Their system should provide about 24 kilowatt hours of solar energy to the clinic daily, exceeding the 18 kilowatt hours it needs each day to function.

Showalter plans to travel to Kenya in August to install the system. He visited the site two years ago in preparation for this effort, but he does add one caveat. The team still is looking for a means to obtain batteries, electronics and a shipping container.