Building power sources in remote locations o r t
By Karen McLean
SPEEA publications editor
Editor’s Note: In honor of Engineers Week, SPEEA features a member volunteering to make a difference with
her degree in electrical engineering.
EVERETT – A village in Kenya has been transformed by the power of engineering thanks to a group of volunteers, includ-ing Ayesha Pirbhai, a SPEEA member and
electrical engineer at The Boeing Company.
“It’s a way to put both of my passions together,” she said, referring to engineering and helping others.
Her volunteer work started off with a project in Zambia. The fishing village
of Chikuni has a wind turbine providing power for a cell phone charging
tower. Before this volunteer effort, villagers had to walk for miles to get
to the nearest charging station.
With no running water or electricity, cell phones were this community’s lifeline – giving them access to information online and a way to
stay connected when making long trips to the closest city – to sell their
fish and charge their phones.
Pirbhai joined this humanitarian engineering effort led by her Seattle
University professor when she was a junior. The college is affiliated with
the Jesuits who have a mission in Chikuni.
“I had never been to an area where people lived with no running water and
no electricity,” she said. “Once
they (villagers) knew it (the wind
turbine) would provide electrical energy to charge their cell
phones, they were so happy.”
After that experience, her pro-fessor co-founded Kilowatts
for Humanity, and developed
a new project in Kenya, in a
fishing village called Muhuru
Bay in 2014-2015. The group
included students, professors
and professionals, including
Pirbhai, who graduated in 2012
and now works on Boeing’s 787
electrical subsystems for power
She spent countless of hours
of meetings and research with
about 20 other volunteers to
help build a microgrid to support a portable battery charging station (for
lights and cell phone charging).
For this project, she joined two trips to Muhuru Bay – first to research
local vendors and survey the village for a better sense of their needs and
abilities. “That was most enjoyable – learning about the families and getting good data as well,” she said.
Then she returned with a group to finish the installation and help the
families understand how to use their portable battery kit.
One of the challenges involved scaling the portable batteries to an appropriate size. Since the charging station is near the village school, the students
are expected to carry the batteries from home (a typical walking distance
is 30 to 40 minutes each way).
The battery packs can help families charge their cell phones and plug in
lights at home. Before they had batteries, they were using kerosene lamps
with toxic fumes. “They were worried about their kids – getting sick from
the kerosene lamps while doing homework,” Pirbhai said.
“Hearing that, and seeing this (humanitarian engineering project) used for
education purposes – that made it even more rewarding for me, since I’m
an advocate for learning. Seeing my background in electrical engineering
contribute to this made it all seem worth it.”
She feels lucky to have been born in a community where something like electricity is taken for granted. She knows it’s a luxury in other parts of the world.
Growing up in Bellevue, she spent many summers in Pakistan visiting
her parents’ relatives. “As a global citizen, it’s my duty to give back,” she
said. “It’s helping individuals,
but it helps me as well,” she said.
“It’s a blessing to have an education that can be of benefit to
the professional community
(Boeing) as well as the under-served community.”
Pirbhai is studying systems
engineering for her master’s with help from Boeing’s
Learning Together Program,
which was one of the reasons
she wanted to work at Boeing.
Having union representation is
an added bonus, she said.
“I see the benefits of being in a
union – if I have a question, I
know there are reps in my area
– and I know I can ask them.
That definitely provides that
community feeling – that sense
of a ‘family company.’”
Member volunteers in Africa
In these photos, Ayesha Pirbhai, a SPEEA Everett member, is shown in Muhuru Bay, Kenya, last
year. She joined volunteers with Kilowatts for Humanity to build a portable battery charging station
for batteries that could power lights in families’ homes.