Classmates, business partners, global changemakers: John Grieser and Brandon Little are determined to bring a sustainable source of energy to the world’s most remote communities. In 2010, a student-led volunteer trip to Tanzania showed them the immense impact just one or two solar panels could have on a community. After graduating from the Oregon Institute of Technology, and determined to dedicate their lives to the expansion of solar both at home and abroad, John and Brandon formed Elemental Energy, a Portland-based solar PV design and installation company. Simultaneously, they continued to participate in international projects—volunteering their time, expertise, and equipment to support solar installations in Democratic Republic of the Congo, Haiti, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Peru.
Realizing their capacity to unite the PV industry behind a global electrification initiative, John and Brandon inevitably formed Twende Solar in an effort to bridge the gap between renewable energy experts and energy-poor communities. On October 22, John, Brandon, and a crew of 15 volunteers will board a plane to Siem Reap, Cambodia, to install solar on the Stephen Mazujian Middle School. We sat down with John and Brandon to discuss their hopes for the upcoming Cambodia project and the future of Twende Solar.
What makes the project in Cambodia unique?
Brandon: It’s bigger than some of commercial projects we do at Elemental Energy. It’s a 26 kilowatt (kW) system. In the past, the average (international) installation was 300 watts, which equates to one or two panels—enough to power lighting and charge cell phones. We recently installed a 6.6kW system on the Maya Jaguar School in Guatemala, so this one is going to be four times larger.
There are many organization dedicated to renewable energy, what makes Twende Solar unique?
B: The large size of our projects, our high quality materials, and our installation expertise. We use the same materials, equipment, and building codes that we use with Elemental Energy.
How do you ensure sustainability for the projects?
John: Our partner organizations have great connections in the communities in which they work. We write a maintenance manual in the local language and act as a professional example of how solar systems should be installed by exchanging knowledge with local workers.
Why are the projects across the world instead of focused in one country?
J: We don’t have the time to understand the local situation, however, we do have a wealth of knowledge and a passion to support sustainable development. Rather than selecting one country to solarize, we select partner organizations who have a proven community-driven programming and strong relationships with local leaders. Our partner organizations have what we lack and we have what they lack, so our proposition to them is, ‘use our expertise to install solar in a better and cheaper way than you could do it.’
How are the projects funded?
B: It’s a combination of the host organization’s contribution (based off their current energy budget and the energy value of the system) and what Twende gathers, including grants, donated and discounted equipment from manufacturers, and funds raised by the volunteers.
Why did you start Twende Solar?
J: In 2010, when we traveled for a college course to Tanzania to install solar in villages, a lightbulb went on because we realized that solar can go anywhere, therefore we can generate electricity anywhere. Twende exists to lower the cost of solar by leveraging our connections in the industry. We reduced the Cambodia project costs by nearly $40,000 through discounted or donated equipment. Everyone in the solar industry wants to install solar in countries that desperately need it. Twende can vet organizations so that companies know they are giving to a project that is well-run and sustainable. There's an ample supply of volunteers and solar manufacturers who want to be involved, but they’re not organized, and that's where Twende come in.
What is your dream for Twende Solar?
J: For it to be the name for international, off-grid installations; to do projects in the places where others don't want to go. One-third of people in the world have either no electricity or unreliable access; that will change rapidly in the coming years, and we want to be an integral part.