Lights for the Enlightened: An Engineering Trek in the Himalayas

How a band of techie volunteers electrified Lingshed monastery and school

10 min read
Group admiring LED light.

opening photoTibetan Buddhist monks celebrate the electrification of the prayer hall at Lingshed Monastery, in the Ladakh region of the Himalayas. The LED lights are connected to solar direct-current microgrids, installed by volunteer engineers from the IEEE Smart Village initiative.Photo: Paula Bronstein

At the Lingshed Gompa, a Buddhist monastery high in the Indian Himalayas, the prayer hall is dark. Of course it’s dark: The sun set 2 hours ago. On any other night, an apprentice monk would have hurried to light kerosene lamps and candles, virtually the only source of artificial illumination in this remote spot. Tonight, though, the lamps and candles remain unlit, and in the hushed murk of the prayer hall, monks and engineers sit in close quarters on the floor and wait, not making a sound, not moving a muscle.

Suddenly a voice booms. “Lingshed Gompa! Great switch on!” Dazzling white light floods the room, as the gathered crowd bursts into applause and a drummer beats out a celebratory tattoo. The lights reveal a knot of monks standing in the center gazing up, their eyes and broad smiles a tableau of wondrous joy.

Photo: Paula Bronstein

Paras Loomba is founder of Global Himalayan Expedition, a nonprofit that has deployed solar microgrids in 15 remote villages that had no access to the power grid. GHE partnered with IEEE Smart Village on the Lingshed project.

The engineers had been discouraged from cheering boisterously, so they exchange quiet handshakes and a few thumbs-ups instead. For the last three days, they’ve labored and sweated to install 14 solar-powered microgrids throughout the monastery and at a nearby elementary school. They’re satisfied and thrilled. But their real reward is knowing that the gentle people in this far-off and forbidding place now have a sustainable and reliable source of electricity.

The crowd files out of the prayer hall, down some well-worn stairs, and into a well-lit stone courtyard. Here, the congratulations break out into the open: bear hugs, high fives, and, yes, boisterous cheering. Soon the drums come out. The dancing begins, and everyone lets loose for a while beneath the lights, in the thin cool air of this mountain monastery, in happy defiance of the darkness and the night.

Just a week earlier, the engineers had arrived in Leh, the largest city in the Ladakh region of the Himalayas, at the very northern tip of India. Home to 31,000, Leh is nestled in a high-altitude desert surrounded by jagged peaks. Most of the engineers had journeyed from abroad—England, Portugal, the United States—and a few brought their spouses or partners.

photo of landscapeIn the Ladakh village of Photoksar, a government-built solar plant has electrified many of the homes, a few of which now rent rooms to trekkers. The added income from such homestays can make a huge difference in a community that survives largely on subsistence farming.Photo: Paula Bronstein

Even with the indignities and discomforts of long-haul air travel, getting to Leh turned out to be the easy part. Being in Leh is much harder. Stepping off the plane, you suddenly have just two-thirds as much oxygen to breathe as at sea level. A stroll down the block feels like high-impact aerobics. Factor in intense sun, bone-dry air, and ever-present dust, and people are soon complaining of headaches, sinus pain, and profound fatigue. One guy passes out at dinner, another is taken to the emergency room and then flown home to Delhi.

The rest of the team is healthy enough to press on, and so the morning after their arrival, they assemble in the hotel’s dining room and review the plan. Their destination is the remote village of Lingshed, about 225 kilometers from Leh and nearly a day’s trek from the nearest drivable road. Lingshed is not connected to the power grid, and although the Indian government has said it plans to set up a decentralized power station in the area, it hasn’t yet set a date. In that respect, the village is far from unique: About half of the population of the Himalayas does without electricity.

map of the HimalayasLingshed is about 225 kilometers from Leh, population 31,000, the largest city in Ladakh.

Fortunately, though, the region receives incredible solar irradiance—1,250 watts per square meter on a clear day in summer, as compared with a sea-level global average of 1,000 watts per square meter. Solar components are now cheap enough, reliable enough, and efficient enough that an off-grid, 24-volt, direct-current microgrid can be had for about US $2,200, including labor and transport. With proper maintenance the finished microgrid can be expected to last up to 10 years.

map of India showing area of detailIllustration: Brandon Palacio

Lingshed village has been the site of the Tibetan Buddhist monastery for about 900 years, and about 700 people live in the village itself or in the surrounding area. The plan is to install a total of 14 microgrids here, divided among the monastery, the local elementary school’s dormitories, and a small computer lab that will double as an Internet café for trekkers. Each microgrid will include a 250-W PV panel, a pair of 12-V lead-acid deep-discharge tubular batteries specially designed for solar systems, and about thirty 3-W LED lightbulbs. Such a modest system strains the definition of the term “microgrid.”

Using direct current rather than alternating current makes sense for an off-grid setting like Lingshed, says Paras Loomba, head of Global Himalayan Expedition (GHE), the group that has organized this project. “The main power grid runs on AC, but solar panels run on DC. So if you can run the LEDs on DC, then you don’t lose efficiency in converting to AC,” he explains. Since Loomba founded the company three years ago, GHE has set up solar microgrids in 15 Ladakh villages, which collectively benefit about 8,500 people.

Each of the engineers on this trip is a volunteer who signed on to the project through the IEEE Smart Village program, GHE’s partner on this and several other installations in the Himalayas. Now a major program of the IEEE Foundation, Smart Village grew out of a 2009 initiative to promote sustainable electrification in the developing world. It aims to reach more than 50 million people over the next decade. “But we have to do it sustainably,” says Ray Larsen, one of the group’s cofounders and an engineer at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center. “We’re not into the model of people parachuting in, dropping in some technology, then walking away, with no structure to support it.”

Photo: Paula Bronstein

Previously, the main sources of artificial illumination at the monastery were candles and kerosene lamps. Here, the candles honor the sand mandala, an intricate and symbolic painting made from colored sand.

The Smart Village volunteers will be doing much of the heavy lifting in Lingshed—quite literally so. They’ll hoist PV panels to rooftops, weight the frames with cement-filled cans, connect the panels to the batteries, string wiring through rooms, down stairwells, and along hallways, and hammer in hundreds of light sockets.

A few of the volunteers have worked on similar humanitarian projects, but this one will entail more manual labor and far more rustic living conditions than any of them is used to. Their base camp will have small tents for sleeping, a mess tent for communal meals, and toilet tents for answering nature’s call. There’s no phone or Internet, and, of course, no electricity. In India, it’s even illegal to carry a satellite phone. Here in Leh, with the expedition stretching ahead of them, everyone seems up for the adventure—they’ve paid their own way to be here, after all. But there’s a hint of apprehension too.

photo of landscape with monkThe monastery overlooks the terraced farms of Lingshed village.Photo: Paula Bronstein

It takes two days to travel from Leh to Lingshed. For the first stretch, everyone piles into SUVs. The two-lane road heading out of town is winding but relatively smooth. Once the pavement runs out at the village of Wanla, the hairpin turns become more frequent, and the pace slows down considerably. A video crew from National Geographic is documenting the journey, and the director calls repeatedly for stops to stage shots of the cars, the road, the scenery. To be sure, the views tend toward the achingly austere and beautiful. Mountains seemingly sheared in half and then stood on their sides, the striations of rock running nearly perpendicular to the ground. Cliff faces formed of undulating ribbons of gray and white stone. Rolling expanses of grass dotted with deep red and purple wildflowers, coaxed from the earth by recent rains. The Himalayas do not disappoint.

photo of landscape with yakThe yak is an essential part of the traditional economy in the Ladakh region, providing food, fuel, transportation, and labor.Photo: Paula Bronstein

At one stop, the volunteers wait while the video crew deploys a drone. It hovers overhead, a whiny intrusion in the idyll. Before long, though, the drone operators ignore a low-battery signal, and the machine plummets to the ground and dies on the rocks. At the next town, a hurried phone call summons a replacement drone from Delhi.

A few hours before sunset, the caravan halts outside the village of Photoksar. A government-built solar plant has electrified most of the homes here, a few of which now sport satellite TV dishes and advertise rooms for trekkers. The added income from such homestays can make a huge difference in a community that survives largely on subsistence farming of such crops as barley, wheat, peas, and millet.

As the sun sets, a 55-year-old engineer from San Diego named Patrick Lee turns philosophical. He’s spent his career working on big power projects, and he’s volunteered with the Smart Village program since 2012 and now serves on its executive committee. Clearly, he believes in the mission, but he also has some concerns. “Is bringing electricity to these remote places actually going to help them?” Lee wonders. “Or is it like the Coke bottle in that movie The Gods Must Be Crazy?” In the film, the sudden introduction of a glass bottle into a small African tribe completely upends their way of life. Traditional Ladakhi culture is a stable one based on communal living and shared resources. For many centuries, it’s what has enabled the people not just to survive but to thrive, despite the long harsh winters and the severe environment.

“We need to think about these questions and not assume that introducing electricity and new technology is always a good thing,” Lee says.

The last leg of the trip starts with another drive. When the gravel road ends, the luggage gets loaded onto donkeys. The volunteers set off on a dirt path that quickly narrows until they’re walking single file. Back in Leh, Jaideep Bansal, an engineer with GHE, had sketched out the trek in broad strokes: “First we’ll walk downhill, then we’ll walk up a bit. Then we’ll stop for lunch. Then we’ll walk up some more. Then down, then up, and then finally down. And then we’ll be in Lingshed.” It all sounded so easy.

Photo: Paula Bronstein

Each microgrid installed in Lingshed consists of a 250-watt photovoltaic panel, a pair of 12-volt lead-acid batteries, and about thirty 3-W LED lightbulbs.

Gazing into the steep valley and across to the mountains beyond, the engineers are at last confronted with the true meaning of “up” and “down”: Before this day is over, they’ll cross two mountain passes, with changes in elevation of several thousand meters. The trek is brutal but at least it’s only a few kilometers long. By late afternoon, the team walks into Lingshed, where they’re welcomed warmly by a long line of villagers, monks, and schoolkids. “Juley! Juley!” they cry out—Hello! in Ladakhi.

The next three days pass in a blur. It turns out that installing microgrids in a thousand-year-old mountain village is exhausting, dirty work. Tapping nails into the monastery’s old wooden beams brings down clouds of choking dust. Many of the rooms are cramped and windowless, with ceilings so low as to be almost cavelike. An argument breaks out over the proper way to strip a wire. It doesn’t help that all they have are hand tools. “If I had a power drill, I’d be done by now,” Lee grumbles.

But the engineers are not lacking for assistants. Monks and students lend a willing hand, as does a team of local electricians, who will help maintain the equipment and train Lingshed residents to do basic repairs and installations. The electricians are largely self-taught, and their grasp of power engineering theory is limited. Electrician Shakir Hussain confers with Lee about the best way to arrange the batteries and the microgrid controller, and comes away impressed. “Patrick Lee is very knowledgeable,” he says. “I learned a lot from him.”

IEEE Smart Village is paying for the grid hardware, but it will be owned collectively by the village. Each household will deposit a monthly fee into a joint savings account to cover maintenance, upgrades, and expansion. If someone wants a TV set—and many people do—they’ll have to buy it themselves, Loomba explains.

While most of the team labors at the monastery, engineers George “Dave” Goldsmith and Varun Loomba, Paras’s older brother, head down the hill to install the final piece of the project: a computer lab for the students, complete with a satellite link for Internet access. Paras got the idea for the lab just a couple months earlier in Zambia, while attending the IEEE’s PowerAfrica conference. There, he met Goldsmith, who had served as a medic in Iraq and had rigged up a satellite link to provide Internet access for his unit. “My platoon loved me—when it was working,” Goldsmith recalls wryly. Within an hour of their meeting, Loomba says, he and Goldsmith agreed to try the same thing in Lingshed.

As soon as Goldsmith returned home to Seattle from Zambia, he began assembling the components, including five low-power Raspberry Pi 3s, a server full of educational content called RACHEL Plus, and a satellite Internet server similar to the one he’d used in Iraq. “I had two weeks to do it in, as well as all my laundry and all the chores I’d missed from being away for a month in Africa,” Goldsmith says.

Paras, meanwhile, had his engineering team in Delhi cobble together DC chargers for the computers and monitors so that they could be powered directly from a 250-W PV panel. Now, in Lingshed, Goldsmith and Varun set up the equipment in a one-story building overlooking the dormitories. Incredibly, despite the rush job done on two continents, all the pieces work together. All except the satellite dish, that is, which stubbornly refuses to acquire a robust signal. The harried telecom technician sweats it out as he struggles to optimize the dish’s settings. Paras, half joking, tells him that if he fails, he can walk back to Delhi. Finally, just hours before the computer lab’s official opening, the technician announces success, and the Himalayan Innovation Centre is ready for business.

Photo: Paula Bronstein

The older students in Lingshed help install the microgrids. Later they will be trained to do repairs and additional upgrades and installations.

At dinner that night in the volunteer’s mess tent, Patrick Lee holds forth. Several years earlier, he’d overseen the construction of a $1.9 billion high-voltage transmission line connecting California’s Imperial Valley to San Diego. In an engineer’s best deadpan, he describes the trials of doing big infrastructure while staying on the right side of environmentalists, homeowners, and government officials. At one site, a family of rabbits had to be relocated, holding up work for the better part of a day. “The last thing we needed was for word to get around that we’re bunny killers,” he says.

It took five years for the transmission line to clear environmental and regulatory review and another three years to get built. “In Lingshed, we put in 14 DC microgrids in three days,” Lee says. “You quickly see the result. And when the monks and the schoolchildren got lights, I heard no complaints.”

Finally, the engineers head off to their tents and to bed, with the lights of the monastery shining brighter than the stars.

photo of landscape with installationThe lights of Lingshed Monastery shine bright. Over the course of three days, the volunteers installed 14 solar DC microgrids.Photo: Paula Bronstein

The next morning, the lights are still on. Councilman Sonam Dorje, Lingshed’s elected official and a steady champion of the project, greets some engineers with a weary “Juley” and reports that he slept with a cover over his eyes.

“Why did you leave the lights on?” one engineer asks.

“Oh, we thought that is what you said to do,” Dorje replies. He shrugs and smiles. Just a message lost in translation.

It’s the 15th of August, India’s Independence Day. The monks and villagers gather for a day of speeches, performances by the schoolkids, a few more speeches, and then dancing. Nobody goes hungry, nobody wants for tea or chhang, the local barley liquor. Overhead, the video drone hovers and buzzes.

And then it’s time to leave. After an early breakfast the next morning, and six days after they first tromped into Lingshed, the engineers begin the slow march up the rocky path that leads away from the village and on to Leh. Finally, with a sense that they have received far more than they have given, they head home.

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