IEEE Smart Village and Its partner Global Himalayan Expedition Bring Solar-Generated Electricity to Lingshed Monastery

In energy-rich, mobile-device-packing countries like the United States, it’s difficult to imagine what it’s like to live in a place where electricity is scarce, or isn’t available at all.

But that’s what life is still like for many citizens of Planet Earth. Energy poverty—in particular, the lack of access to plentiful electricity—affects about 1.2 billion people, keeping them in social and economic darkness.

Last year, the United Nations adopted 17 sustainable development goals, No. 7 of which is “ensuring access to affordable, reliable, sustainable modern energy.” Given the history and mission of IEEE, it is especially fitting that the organization has mobilized to help end energy poverty through an initiative called IEEE Smart Village.

The program has its roots in a 2009 working group cofounded by IEEE Fellows Ray Larsen and Robin Podmore to address the problems of people with no access to the electric grid. Two years ago, it became one of the IEEE Foundation’s signature programs, which made it a priority fund-raising initiative.

Smart Village receives support through the IEEE Nuclear and Plasma Sciences Society and the IEEE Power & Energy Society. Many other IEEE societies are also supporting Smart Village with financial and human resources, among them the Industry Applications Society, the Industrial Electronics Society, the Consumer Electronics Society, and the Humanitarian Activities Committee.

Working with its partner, Global Himalayan Expedition (GHE), a Smart Village team traveled to the Indian Himalayas in August to install 14 solar-powered microgrids at the Lingshed Monastery, in an area revered as the “rooftop of the world.” IEEE Spectrum senior editor Jean Kumagai, along with award-winning photographer Paula Bronstein, accompanied IEEE volunteers, Smart Village senior program manager Mike Wilson, GHE team leaders, and National Geographic videographers. The story of their extraordinary journey is told in “Lights for the Enlightened,” in this issue.

In addition to India, Smart Village has supported installations in Cameroon, Haiti, Kenya, Nigeria, South Sudan, and Zambia. A crucial aspect of the Smart Village mission is sustainability. Larsen and Podmore realized from the start that humanitarian efforts tend not to endure—there’s often nobody to maintain the technology or pay for its upkeep, and so it gets abandoned. Smart Village therefore partners with local entrepreneurs, who must have solid business plans that describe the way forward for their projects. Many of these partners met with Smart Village leaders last summer at the IEEE PowerAfrica conference in Zambia. And they continue to collaborate through a new online program at Regis University, in Denver.

At Spectrum we don’t often write directly about the many important activities of IEEE—that’s the job of our sister publication, The Institute, IEEE’s excellent member newspaper. But this wonderful story of technology in the service of humanity involves the efforts of such a wide array of IEEE groups and organizations, and the topic is such a crucial one—the eradication of energy poverty—that we decided to feature it here. It’s a high note on which to end 2016.

If you’d like to help but don’t have the time to go trekking, the IEEE Foundation is seeking to raise US $10 million to enable Smart Village to bring basic electrical and educational services to more than 50 million people by 2025. Make your donations at https://ieeefoundation.org/SmartVillage_donation.

This article first appeared in IEEE Spectrum.