Ben, a professional PV installer in Oregon, volunteered with Twende Solar this past August to electrify the Maya Jaguar School. We had a chance to sit down with Ben to discuss what inspired him to participate and his overall experience traveling throughout rural Guatemala.
Why did you decide to volunteer?
There were several reasons I decided to get involved with Twende, however, the driving force was being able to lend my skills for a really cool, impactful project. I have been installing solar for the past three years and have always wanted to volunteer in a remote place that needs solar electricity. Also, I love to travel—it was great to visit a new place, meet new people, and bond with my coworkers. And finally, I had never installed a battery backup PV system before, so it was an opportunity to expand my own knowledge.
What was your role on the install team?
I focused on installing the mounts and racking, and laying out the electrical wiring for when the solar panels arrived. We ran into a few hurdles with our equipment clearing customs, which ultimately delayed the arrival of the solar panels and batteries at the school. Luckily we had cut the rails to fit inside ski bags, and brought the roof hardware and wiring with us on the plane. Half of the volunteers extended their stay several more days to install the panels and batteries once they arrived.
What did you enjoy most about the trip?
I really enjoyed meeting the people who worked at the school. Some of the graduates had finished college and returned to teach or manage the school. Also, cooking over open fire. The school was completely off grid and self-sustaining—they grew almost all their food and had a huge chicken coop. We were able to cook with the workers and ate a lot of eggs, beans, tortillas, and veggies.
One day after installing we went on an amazing hike through the jungle led by Don Juan, an older gentleman who worked at the school. Don Juan was in his seventies and yet more fit than the rest of us, moving through the jungle like it was nothing. He led us to a volcanic crater lake, and along the way we crossed paths with people living off the land who helped us find the lake.
What surprised you while traveling throughout Guatemala?
I had heard that Guatemala was dangerous because of the drug trade, but I was surprised at the kindness and compassion of the people. They were more helpful that I had expected; I don’t speak Spanish but I was able to communicate enough with sign language or writing, and the locals helped me find where I was going. Also, the amount of rainfall was amazing! I have never seen heavier rain in my life.
Also, the school was far more off-grid than I had expected. They had their own composting, grew fruit and vegetables, had greenhouses, and made fresh corn tortillas each day. It was nice to be disconnected from cell phones and electronics.
"Bringing solar power to remote communities, in this case the Maya Jaguar School, is such an important endeavor because it allows these students to benefit in ways not possible without electricity. A whole new world of possibilities opens up when electricity comes into play. Electricity can provide the means to acquire an education, gain greater knowledge, and be a channel to the entire world."