Turn on the Lights: Solar Powering Sudan

According to the International Energy Agency, over 20 percent of the global population – 1.4 billion people – lack access to electricity. For the other 80 percent of the world, the movement towards greener climates and sustainability has countless people turning off the lights, reducing water consumption, reusing, recycling, and refining. Yet the IEA data provides a stark reminder that for some inhabitants of the world, just turning the lights on is still a very real necessity.

And that’s where four University of San Diego engineering students come in. As this year’s Engineering Programs’ 2011 senior project, Emmett Perl ’11, Enrique Rayon ’11, Mou Riiny ’11, and Michael Rios ’11 plan on creating an alternative, clean energy solution for the village of Theou in southern Sudan. It will ultimately provide a community with electricity for the very first time.

And, better yet, it will be sustainable.

The project, titled “Engineering a Brighter Sudan,” aims to design and build a power generation storage system for the Theou Village School, a primary school in Sudan. Solar panels have been decided upon because of the many advantages to providing the community with a clean, sustainable source of power that at the same time takes advantage of the abundant sun in the region.

“Our first semester of the project will be creating the proposal,” said Rios. “The second semester will be designing the system, testing it, and building it. We will build a small-scale model on campus to demonstrate that we can effectively design this system and prove we can provide a strong, sustainable design.”

It’s a project with large dreams and big ambitions, but one that sits particularly close to home for one of the engineering students, Mou Riiny. Because, at one time, the village of Theou was his home.

Riiny is one of the survivors of the 1987 civil war in Sudan that drove an estimated 20,000 young boys and girls from their families. Many just six or seven years old, they wandered over 1,000 miles across dangerous terrain until they reached UN refugee camps in Kenya. Many died along the way, but some that survived were eventually relocated to various locations throughout the United States. Riiny was settled in Boston, Mass., before ultimately coming to San Diego to attend USD.

And now, he wishes to give back to the community that he left behind so long ago.

Riiny recognizes that the possibilities of providing a source of electricity to Theou are endless. “It will power indoor lights and outdoor lights for a picnic area and community meetings,” he said. “It will power charging stations so people can charge batteries, laptops, and cell phones.” And most importantly, having a source of power in the region will allow neighboring villages to take advantage of the countless benefits, as well.

A project of this scope and size will require a fair amount of support, including financial. “This is a project that makes us stand out,” said Rayon. “We have some of the most ambitious goals because this project would extend beyond end of academic year.”

To help cover some of the costs of creating, building and ultimately shipping the solar panel project to Sudan, the four engineers have recently partnered with AMSOLAR — the same company that has provided USD with nearly 5,000 photovoltaic solar panels on top of 11 buildings throughout campus.

“Specifically they [AMSOLAR] offered a match grant, so any money we raise through USD will be matched by AMSOLAR up to a certain amount,” said Rios. “In other words, each dollar donated through USD is worth two dollars.”

“Electricity is something that we take for granted here in the United States,” said Perl. “What we don't realize is that there are many people in this world who have never been around electricity. What is so tremendous about our project is that we will be giving the people of Theou electricity when they might never have access to it otherwise.”

Yes, it is tremendous, but it is also proof of how four students’ visions and dreams may change the lives of thousands by capturing a small piece of the sun.

— Kelly Machleit

For more information about the project and to make a donation, visit