SolarCity, Tesla, and Virunga

Building Solar Micro Grids for the guardians of Africa’s oldest and most biodiverse national park

Solar at the Lulimbi Ranger Station in Virunga National Park. Credit: Garth Pratt
Read more from Joe O’Connor, author of Off Grid Solar: A handbook for Photovoltaics with Lead-Acid or Lithium-Ion batteries.

It’s a hazy afternoon and I’m sitting in an open-air jeep driving fast down a bumpy road full of boulders and muddy puddles. Our driver is honking, trying to pass a line of trucks so overloaded with people and goods that I think they might burst. Leaving later than expected, we’re rushing to get to the next site before dark. The rangers warned us that the threat of being kidnapped heightens after nightfall. So when we suddenly slow to a stop with cars and trucks blocking both directions, I become anxious. In the front of our caravan, several rangers with loaded machine guns hop out of the jeep to investigate the scene ahead.

Credit: Garth Pratt

We’re hours away from our first solar installation site, Rwindi, the northern gateway to Virunga National Park in the Democratic Republic of The Congo. I am well aware that since 2015, more than 175 people have been kidnapped while driving on this very road.

While we wait, my team and I tell each other jokes to distract ourselves until at last, a ranger returns to pick up a wheel wrench—it seems the truck ahead had a flat tire. With a collective exhale, we eventually start moving again, slowly inching through traffic. As we meander towards our destination past the overflowing trucks, we hear shouts of mzungu, or white person, which literally translates to “someone who roams around” in Swahili. Perhaps the people are asking themselves what five white guys are doing out here, and to be honest, a few moments ago, I was wondering the same thing.

I am here leading a team of five SolarCity engineers volunteering for the GivePower Foundation to build solar micro grids in order to electrify three remote ranger stations in Virunga National Park, an UNESCO World Heritage Site in eastern DRC, on the border of Uganda and Rwanda. Our plan is to install 200 solar panels, seven Tesla Powerwalls, along with wiring lights and plugs for dozens of buildings. In order to complete our project on time, we also hired and trained local electricians and construction crews.

Sefu Kasali Kibengo Trésor, local electrician, and Joe, SolarCity engineer, working together to install Tesla Powerwalls.
Solar at the Rwindi Ranger Station in Virunga National Park

Endangered Mama and baby gorilla near Bukima

Before we arrived in DRC, the ranger stations relied on diesel generators and kerosene lamps for energy. Given that Virunga sits in a vulnerable location with the threat of armed rebel groups and poachers, refueling trips were both dangerous and unsustainable for the rangers. By electrifying these three ranger stations with a renewable energy infrastructure, we further empowered the guardians of Virunga to defend the park and the gorillas by increasing their security and making their quality of life easier.

Sunrise at Rwindi Ranger Station

I spent four months planning this project—from mapping out the ultimate packing list (trust me, there are no Home Depot’s around the corner in Congo), to drafting a timeline and installation plan—all so that we could bring clean, reliable solar energy to people who truly deserve it, people who are risking their lives to protect a precious ecosystem. Now, as we bounce past semi-trucks overflowing with goods and people clinging to the bumper, I think about how far we are from the conveniences of home. I think about the potential threats, and also how there are many things that could go wrong with these installations. We only have one chance to do this right, and I don’t want to let my team down.

Joe O’Connor and Dan Retz planning at SolarCity’s San Rafael office

A few months ago, back at my comfortable, air-conditioned office in San Rafael, California, I began planning how we might go about installing the world’s newest solar technology at three remote locations in a country that I had never visited. We prototyped the equipment in our warehouse and tried to troubleshoot in advance, thinking about how we might need to adapt to an unknown environment half way around the world. Luckily, we pulled together a team that could think on their feet and put up with challenging, and possibly dangerous situations.

The Team after finishing the Solar Photovoltaic array at Rwindi Ranger Station
Tesla Powerwalls and SolarEdge StorEdge Inverters

Almost immediately upon arrival, we realized that we had to reconfigure some of the biggest variables of our installation plan. For example, at the first site we had to entirely relocate the battery and inverter equipment into a different building for protection from the elements. Despite this and other unexpected challenges, we were able to problem solve and adapt on the go, and ultimately create a better system than we had previously planned.

Credit: Garth Pratt

After three weeks on the ground in Virunga, we successfully completed our objective and installed the three solar micro grids. Now, rather than rely on dirty fossil fuels and unreliable generators, the park rangers can cleanly and reliably power their lights, communication systems, computers, radios, and GPS units. Besides that, they can cook their meals with electric stoves; no longer do they need to use charcoal from nearby trees as a fuel source. As we installed the solar electrical equipment, many rangers shared their gratitude and aspirations to expand the outposts with more tents, buildings, and infrastructure to accommodate a growing tourist economy.

This solar project was a massive amount of complex work done in a short amount of time, but the chance to help protect one of the world’s most diverse ecosystems was worth it, even if the road was a little bumpy and the snorting hippos were loud at night.

Elephants and Hippos on the border of Uganda and Lulimbi, DR Congo

Why is Virunga important and why should it be protected?

Before: Hotel in Rwindi circa 1950s
After: Abandoned hotel in Rwindi 2016

In 1925, Virunga National Park became the very first national park in Africa. Virunga is the continent’s most biologically diverse protected area and is home to the world’s last remaining endangered mountain gorillas. Once rich with wildlife and natural flora and fauna, the park was a top tourist destination up until the Congo Civil War destroyed much of its ecosystem. In the last several years, brave efforts have been made to protect and revitalize this region. Despite these efforts, and despite being a UNESCO protected site, various dangers continue to threaten the park including the fact that 80% of the area has been allocated to oil concessions. Additionally, an illegal energy business booms in this environmentally sensitive region. Rebels cut down trees on the preserve in order to convert them into charcoal to be sold as a means for survival and fuel. This black market energy business continues to decimate the habitat of the endangered gorillas at an alarming rate.

Available streaming on Netflix

Today, a team of dedicated rangers risk their lives every day to defend and protect this park and its animal inhabitants from armed rebels and poachers. To learn more about their story, watch the feature-length documentary film Virunga on Netflix.

Why are Solar Micro Grids in this region helpful and important?

Solar micro grids in Virunga make the ranger’s lives both safer and easier. Not only does stable, sustainable electricity make day-to-day functions simpler, but it also gives the rangers better protection and communication because they do not need to travel hours away just to refuel the generator multiple times a week. Also, solar obviously produces no exhaust and makes no noise, as generators do, therefore greatly improving the ranger’s work environment. Besides these practical benefits, the rangers can now confidently carry out their mission to protect the park without being a part of the dirty and illegal fossil fuel economy.

Several other areas of DRC are getting a centralized electricity grid. In 2015, a run of the river mini-hydroelectric plant was installed near the town of Rutshuru, providing power to nearby communities. But the remote ranger stations and other communities far from the city center will not be connected to that grid any time soon.

Other regions near Virunga may never connect to a grid, leaving many people with overpriced options for electricity. For perspective, the cost of using diesel generators is USD $0.60 per kWh—four times more expensive than what I pay in California—and the cost to use kerosene for lights is USD $3.00 per kWh, over 15 times more expensive than in areas connected to a grid. These prices for energy are too high for locals, yet affordable energy is the key to unlocking local economies and empowering people to take risks and start businesses. This is why micro grids are so important—to complement utility grids by providing energy to otherwise remote regions.

How does this project relate to other developing countries ?

Projects such as these are important because they prove that clean energy is a viable, practical solution, especially for remote locations. Renewable energy technology and battery storage has greatly improved and become affordable. By making solar electricity available to people in the world’s most environmentally sensitive regions, we’re setting the example that renewable energy is not a luxury for the rich, but an effective solution for all.

As leaders in technology, companies like Tesla and SolarCity are setting an example of how our future world can and should change for the better. Renewable energy is inevitable. While we may not realize it, we all hold an obligation to think about how we can positively participate in our inevitable fight against global climate change.

Thumbs up to you too, James!

This solar micro grid project in Virunga National Park was made possible thanks to: Empowered By Light Foundation (EBL) in collaboration with the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation and SolarCity’s GivePower Foundation.

Read more from Joe O’Connor, author of Off Grid Solar: A handbook for Photovoltaics with Lead-Acid or Lithium-Ion batteries.

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Credit: Garth Pratt