The monsoon rains have eased, and Salinee Tavaranan and several members of her team are piled into the back of a tan pickup truck. The vehicle winds along dirt roads near the Thai-Burma border, eventually pulling through the front gates of the Mae La refugee camp. Having fled torture and economic hardship in neighboring Burma, thousands of refugees now call this place home. Many have lived here for years, in simple thatched huts without electricity or running water.
But thanks to Tavaranan and her Border Green Energy Team, Mae La and more than 20 other refugee camps and villages are no longer entirely cut off from the grid. Over the past two and a half years, BGET, a project of the Thailand-based nonprofit Palang Thai, has installed solar panels and microhydro turbines across the region and trained hundreds of local residents on how to install and maintain the systems. The work of BGET has in turn given the villagers access to some of the most basic amenities: lights, computers, and decent health care, to name a few.
”The most rewarding thing about this job is to be able to use my education to help people and to improve their lives,” Tavaranan says, her face lighting up with a warm, enthusiastic smile.
Concern for others and for the environment was what led Tavaranan to engineering in the first place. She grew up on the beach resort island of Phuket, in southern Thailand, and thoughts about protecting the natural beauty of her hometown inspired her to pursue mechanical engineering with a concentration in energy systems at Chulalongkorn University in Bangkok. After graduating in 2001, she went on to earn an M.S. in solar energy engineering at the University of Massachusetts Lowell.
Tavaranan was one semester into a Ph.D. program at Lowell when she learned from a friend that BGET was looking for a project director. For her, it was a no-brainer; the mission of BGET, based in Tak, Thailand, fit perfectly with her training and her sensibilities. She applied, was offered the job, and soon found herself working in the jungles and mountains of northwestern Thailand.
Back at Mae La, Tavaranan and her team hike up a steep hill, scrambling over fallen trees and across streams, before arriving at a one-room school surrounded by lofty cliffs. Inside, students work at a dozen desktop and laptop computers. They're enrolled in a program that teaches them graphic design and programming skills that might prove marketable once they receive immigration visas and can leave the camp. The computers and classroom lights, as well as some power tools, can run all day and night now--this, due to a row of Japanese-made amorphous-silicon solar panels sitting outside and a shed full of lead-acid batteries.
BGET engineers designed the solar setup so that the panels' output is channeled to a controller that then feeds the appropriate amount of juice to the computers, lights, and tools. Any leftover energy is converted from ac to dc for storage in the battery shed. School administrators fire up a backup diesel generator only when the solar panels aren't producing enough energy--and thankfully, that's rare, because the fuel is expensive and the generator, noisy and smelly.
This coming year, BGET plans to install a solar-powered water pump at Mae La that will be used for agriculture. In addition to its work in the refugee camps, the team assists Thailand's ethnic minorities, who live in communities that are similarly impoverished, as well as backpack medics embarking on humanitarian missions inside Burma. It trains the medics to install the solar panels and microhydro turbines, and the medics can then train Burmese villagers to operate the equipment themselves.
Tavaranan eventually envisions linking up villages throughout the region into a series of interconnected minigrids, all powered by solar panels and microhydro generators. She explains that all the technology BGET installs has been designed to be simple enough for the villagers themselves to maintain.
”The villagers see that this is the most appropriate form of energy for them, both because of the location and the situation,” she says. They're not the only ones who could benefit from using more renewable sources, she adds. ”Big cities might consider integrating these methods with more traditional sources of energy, to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels.”
As Tavaranan and her team prepare to leave the refugee camp, sunlight bounces off a solar panel outside one of the houses. The homeowner paid for and installed the panel himself, Tavaranan points out. ”That's a good thing,” she says. ”The more people learn to harness natural energy, the better their lives become.”
About the Author
DEAN ADAMS is a journalist and television producer based in Bangkok. He traveled to northwest Thailand to interview Salinee Tavaranan and found the experience enlightening. ”[It] made me understand that alternate sources of energy are much easier to implement and maintain than I’d thought possible. Approached thoughtfully, they work with nature, rather than against it. It opened my eyes.”