How 14 Microgrids Set Off a Chain Reaction in a Himalayan Village

A paved road is just one of the new projects

4 min read
A village lit up with lights on the side of a mountain.

The Lingshed Monastery testing the newly installed 14 solar microgrids, each which power a string of LEDs located in homes and along the streets.

Paula Bronstein

Five years ago, the remote village of Lingshed in the Ladakh region of the northern Himalayas finally got electricity. A team of IEEE volunteers installed 14 solar-powered microgrids at the monastery and a nearby elementary school. The effort was led by IEEE Smart Village, a program that brings electricity—as well as educational and employment opportunities—to remote communities worldwide. The program is one of the donor-supported priority initiatives of the IEEE Foundation.

The Lingshed project was done in collaboration with the Global Himalayan Expedition, an organization that couples tourism with technology to deliver solar energy to remote communities.

In July GHE founder Paras Loomba returned to Lingshed at the request of IEEE Smart Village to learn what kind of impact the microgrids have had on the community. He found that the IEEE project has helped the villagers improve their living conditions with modern conveniences and inspired the construction of a new 100-kilometer-long road to make it easier to travel between Lingshed and Leh, the largest city in the area. It is hoped that the route, which is still in progress, also will increase tourism in the area.

The road replaces a gravel trail that could be traversed only by foot, with donkeys carrying any luggage or packages. The new road is expected to transform a two-day walk to a six-hour drive by car.

ELECTRICITY FOR THE HIMALAYAS

To bring electricity to Lingshed, the IEEE group installed 14 solar microgrids, each powering a string of LEDs in homes and along the streets. The grids were divided among the village's monastery, dormitories at the elementary school, and a small computer lab built by GHE that doubles as an Internet café for travelers. The lab has a satellite Internet link and "offline Internet," a collection of encyclopedias on a hard drive that students can use for school. Each microgrid includes a 250-watt photovoltaic panel, a pair of 12-volt lead-acid deep-discharge tubular batteries designed for solar systems, and about 30 3-W LEDs, according to Jean Kumagi's article in IEEE Spectrum about the expedition, in which she gave her first-hand account.

Before the 2016 electrification project, the monks and the temple's acolytes conducted pujas—Buddhist prayer ceremonies—in the dark or with little light at dawn and dusk, Sonam Dorje, Linghsed's mayor, told Loomba in a recent interview. The monks were dependent on kerosene lamps, not only for light but also to heat the monastery. Now, thanks to the microgrids, the room where they conduct the prayer ceremonies has light. Students can now study at night, and the satellite Internet link, which was active until 2019 when the services stopped, allowed students to stay up to date on news. The local government installed a mobile tower this year—which has enabled the village to have cellular service and Internet access.

3 bright light bulbs hang in a colorful monastery. Monks using the lights inside the Lingshed Monastery's main prayer room where monks conduct pujas.Sonam Dorje

After IEEE Smart Village and GHE engineers installed the microgrids, Loomba says, the villagers approached another organization and asked it to install more of them.

Some villagers now use space heaters during the winter at home instead of kerosene lamps. Some even purchased televisions.

The mayor told Loomba that the villagers now want to focus on motivating their children to pursue higher education.

THE ROAD TO CONNECTIVITY

Traveling from Leh to Lingshed was quite a feat before construction of the road began in 2017.

Kumagi described the trek in her 2016 Spectrum article. The team traveled the first leg of the trip to Lingshed in an SUV. "The two-lane road heading out of town is winding but relatively smooth," Kumagi wrote. "Once the pavement runs out at the village of Wanla, the hairpin turns become more frequent, and the pace slows down considerably."

Unable to drive the rest of the way, the team loaded its luggage onto donkeys. The engineers trekked alongside them. They traveled through two mountain passes up to the village. That section of the journey alone took nearly 10 hours.

The new road was built by the Border Roads Organisation, a construction program run by the Indian Armed Forces.

The unpaved, single-lane route allows for four-wheel drive Jeeps to travel through the mountain pass, but it's not wide enough to accommodate vans or buses.

Donkeys carrying packs walk along a narrow mountain road

Donkeys carrying the IEEE Smart Village teams' luggage through the mountain pass in 2016.

An unpaved road winds through a mountain. Blue skies and clouds in the background.

The newly unpaved, single-lane route allows for four-wheel drive Jeeps to travel through the pass.

Global Himalayan Expedition

Thanks to the road, "it became easier for the people to transport materials and medical supplies," Dorje says. People now can be transferred to the hospital if they need urgent medical attention.

Because of heavy snowfall in the winter, the route is open only from June to October. The road must be regraded every spring—which provides villagers with jobs and a steady income, Loomba says.

The road will help attract tourists to the area and increase local businesses' revenue, he told The Institute. The route is currently being extended to reach Zanskar Valley, an up-and-coming tourist destination, he says. The valley is 40 km from Lingshed and is known for its scenic landscape. It usually takes four days for travelers to reach it from Lingshed, and they have to walk across the frozen Zanskar River—which can be dangerous, Loomba says. Thanks to the road, the trip from Lingshed to the valley will take about 10 hours, he says.

Loomba says he never could have foreseen how big of an impact electrification would have on Lingshed.

"Sometimes when you [take part in] a project, you don't [envision] how [the community] will evolve," he says.

IEEE Smart Village is an IEEE Foundation supported program. Learn more about how you can support it on the IEEE Foundation website.

The Conversation (4)
Pathanjali Peri12 Oct, 2021
M

These are the GODs who bring Light to the dark villages. The children of this village studying and aiming to become big in life is commendable. Also with Internet being available here, they are into the mainstream of Information and repository of Knowledge. Sky is the limit for those students. In our country, no village should be in darkness. IEEE's mission of achieving such projects successfully is highly commendable and wish all the success to IEEE for such projects which improve the Quality of Life !!.

Shahid Zulfiqar12 Oct, 2021
M

Keep up the good job. Thank-you IEEE

Rafael Hernandez10 Oct, 2021
LS

I worked for an electric power utility in South America for a long time. Electrification of an isolated community happened weekly. We got the reward of improving the life of the community for ever, stories like the one described in the article being discussed. But it is a shame, today, we have nuclear weapons, we have strong military forces with weapons of mass destruction, huge armies capable of killing at will, and yet, we have one billion people without electricity or clean fresh water deliverd to the home. Something is wrong.

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The Inner Beauty of Basic Electronics

Open Circuits showcases the surprising complexity of passive components

5 min read
Vertical
A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.
All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay
Blue

Eric Schlaepfer was trying to fix a broken piece of test equipment when he came across the cause of the problem—a troubled tantalum capacitor. The component had somehow shorted out, and he wanted to know why. So he polished it down for a look inside. He never found the source of the short, but he and his collaborator, Windell H. Oskay, discovered something even better: a breathtaking hidden world inside electronics. What followed were hours and hours of polishing, cleaning, and photography that resulted in Open Circuits: The Inner Beauty of Electronic Components (No Starch Press, 2022), an excerpt of which follows. As the authors write, everything about these components is deliberately designed to meet specific technical needs, but that design leads to “accidental beauty: the emergent aesthetics of things you were never expected to see.”

From a book that spans the wide world of electronics, what we at IEEE Spectrum found surprisingly compelling were the insides of things we don’t spend much time thinking about, passive components. Transistors, LEDs, and other semiconductors may be where the action is, but the simple physics of resistors, capacitors, and inductors have their own sort of splendor.

High-Stability Film Resistor

A photo of a high-stability film resistor with the letters "MIS" in yellow.

All photos by Eric Schlaepfer & Windell H. Oskay

This high-stability film resistor, about 4 millimeters in diameter, is made in much the same way as its inexpensive carbon-film cousin, but with exacting precision. A ceramic rod is coated with a fine layer of resistive film (thin metal, metal oxide, or carbon) and then a perfectly uniform helical groove is machined into the film.

Instead of coating the resistor with an epoxy, it’s hermetically sealed in a lustrous little glass envelope. This makes the resistor more robust, ideal for specialized cases such as precision reference instrumentation, where long-term stability of the resistor is critical. The glass envelope provides better isolation against moisture and other environmental changes than standard coatings like epoxy.

15-Turn Trimmer Potentiometer

A photo of a blue chip
A photo of a blue chip on a circuit board.

It takes 15 rotations of an adjustment screw to move a 15-turn trimmer potentiometer from one end of its resistive range to the other. Circuits that need to be adjusted with fine resolution control use this type of trimmer pot instead of the single-turn variety.

The resistive element in this trimmer is a strip of cermet—a composite of ceramic and metal—silk-screened on a white ceramic substrate. Screen-printed metal links each end of the strip to the connecting wires. It’s a flattened, linear version of the horseshoe-shaped resistive element in single-turn trimmers.

Turning the adjustment screw moves a plastic slider along a track. The wiper is a spring finger, a spring-loaded metal contact, attached to the slider. It makes contact between a metal strip and the selected point on the strip of resistive film.

Ceramic Disc Capacitor

A cutaway of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor
A photo of a Ceramic Disc Capacitor

Capacitors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of static electricity. They’re used in countless ways, including for bulk energy storage, to smooth out electronic signals, and as computer memory cells. The simplest capacitor consists of two parallel metal plates with a gap between them, but capacitors can take many forms so long as there are two conductive surfaces, called electrodes, separated by an insulator.

A ceramic disc capacitor is a low-cost capacitor that is frequently found in appliances and toys. Its insulator is a ceramic disc, and its two parallel plates are extremely thin metal coatings that are evaporated or sputtered onto the disc’s outer surfaces. Connecting wires are attached using solder, and the whole assembly is dipped into a porous coating material that dries hard and protects the capacitor from damage.

Film Capacitor

An image of a cut away of a capacitor
A photo of a green capacitor.

Film capacitors are frequently found in high-quality audio equipment, such as headphone amplifiers, record players, graphic equalizers, and radio tuners. Their key feature is that the dielectric material is a plastic film, such as polyester or polypropylene.

The metal electrodes of this film capacitor are vacuum-deposited on the surfaces of long strips of plastic film. After the leads are attached, the films are rolled up and dipped into an epoxy that binds the assembly together. Then the completed assembly is dipped in a tough outer coating and marked with its value.

Other types of film capacitors are made by stacking flat layers of metallized plastic film, rather than rolling up layers of film.

Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

A photo of a cutaway of a Dipped Tantalum Capacitor

At the core of this capacitor is a porous pellet of tantalum metal. The pellet is made from tantalum powder and sintered, or compressed at a high temperature, into a dense, spongelike solid.

Just like a kitchen sponge, the resulting pellet has a high surface area per unit volume. The pellet is then anodized, creating an insulating oxide layer with an equally high surface area. This process packs a lot of capacitance into a compact device, using spongelike geometry rather than the stacked or rolled layers that most other capacitors use.

The device’s positive terminal, or anode, is connected directly to the tantalum metal. The negative terminal, or cathode, is formed by a thin layer of conductive manganese dioxide coating the pellet.

Axial Inductor

An image of a cutaway of a Axial Inductor
A photo of a collection of cut wires

Inductors are fundamental electronic components that store energy in the form of a magnetic field. They’re used, for example, in some types of power supplies to convert between voltages by alternately storing and releasing energy. This energy-efficient design helps maximize the battery life of cellphones and other portable electronics.

Inductors typically consist of a coil of insulated wire wrapped around a core of magnetic material like iron or ferrite, a ceramic filled with iron oxide. Current flowing around the core produces a magnetic field that acts as a sort of flywheel for current, smoothing out changes in the current as it flows through the inductor.

This axial inductor has a number of turns of varnished copper wire wrapped around a ferrite form and soldered to copper leads on its two ends. It has several layers of protection: a clear varnish over the windings, a light-green coating around the solder joints, and a striking green outer coating to protect the whole component and provide a surface for the colorful stripes that indicate its inductance value.

Power Supply Transformer

A photo of a collection of cut wires
A photo of a yellow element on a circuit board.

This transformer has multiple sets of windings and is used in a power supply to create multiple output AC voltages from a single AC input such as a wall outlet.

The small wires nearer the center are “high impedance” turns of magnet wire. These windings carry a higher voltage but a lower current. They’re protected by several layers of tape, a copper-foil electrostatic shield, and more tape.

The outer “low impedance” windings are made with thicker insulated wire and fewer turns. They handle a lower voltage but a higher current.

All of the windings are wrapped around a black plastic bobbin. Two pieces of ferrite ceramic are bonded together to form the magnetic core at the heart of the transformer.

This article appears in the February 2023 print issue.

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