Elemental Energy may be a successful residential and small commercial solar installer in the Portland, Oregon, area, but the company’s solar-obsession extends far beyond the Pacific Northwest. The company’s 15 employees, not content with just clocking in every day, are also affiliated with the non-profit Twende Solar, which bridges the gap between renewable energy experts and energy-poor communities throughout the world.
Elemental Energy has its roots in philanthropic missions. The company formed after Oregon Institute of Technology renewable energy engineering students John Grieser and Brandon Little attended a class trip to Tanzania with the local non-profit Solar Hope to bring more solar power to the African country. After applying what they learned in textbooks to install a real-life solar system, Grieser said a lightbulb went off.
“Here we are being able to design and install systems on locations that would otherwise not receive electricity,” he said. “We realized this technology and this education we received can change people’s lives. That experience ignited this passion for solar. We returned to the U.S. and said, ‘That’s it. We’re devoting our careers to working in solar energy.’
“We’ve been running Elemental for seven years based on that first experience in Tanzania.”
While finding success at home, Elemental employees still participated in at least one international solar development project each year, whether it was a return trip to Tanzania or other energy-poor communities.
“We’ve been involved with these types of projects ever since the beginning. It’s so woven into the core of who we are and what we do,” Grieser said. “As we’ve built Elemental Energy and become full-fledged professional solar installers, using industry best practices and understanding all the codes and standards—and taking that to these other projects internationally—we recognized a very big gap.”
Grieser and his traveling team found that many international projects were not held to the same high U.S. standards, often because the non-profit organizing the installation had more experience building community relationships than building solar. So Elemental Energy formed Twende Solar to take that burden off these community groups.
“We understand the technology, we have relationships with the rest of the industry,” Grieser said. “We’ll partner with [on-the-ground non-profits] and take on the entire solar design project. We bridge the gap between those who want to donate and want to support and provide in the solar industry and those that need it.”
Cassandra Boyce, Twende Solar’s full-time director of international empowerment, explained that Twende means “let’s go” in Swahili, so the organization is essentially saying, “Let’s go solar.”
“It’s a call to action,” she said. “Let’s all come to together, let’s bring our access to materials and equipment and expertise and time, let’s all come together as the PV industry and let’s help electrify those who need it most—schools, medical clinics, other community centers in these remote communities.”
Although the goal is to bring solar to energy-poor communities, Twende Solar doesn’t just give the systems away for free. Grieser said many donated solar systems fail over time because communities don’t understand their true value.
“They didn’t have to go through the mental exercise of understanding how much it costs, [seeing its worth and being] willing to pay for it,” he said. “If they don’t do that, they don’t fully appreciate the benefits of a system, and the systems can fall under disrepair.”
Twende Solar works with communities already using and paying for electricity—maybe with kerosene or diesel fuel. The group asks the community to contribute what it’d pay for three to five years of “dirty” electricity. Then Twende Solar finds donations and discounted equipment to bring down the cost of the system even further.
Twende Solar has completed two projects thus far—a 6.6-kW system on a high school in Guatemala and a 26-kW system on a middle school in Cambodia. Major industry players, including SolarWorld, SunModo, Outback Power, Rolls Battery and Itek Energy, have donated materials, while many others have donated time and effort. Projects planned for 2017 should be announced in May.
“This is the solar industry coming together to support these projects,” Boyce said. “After each install, we host solar educational programming, and we work with the students so they understand what solar is. We hope from that not only are they becoming curious in STEM-related career paths but hopefully we’re inspiring the next leaders and innovators within the PV industry in these various countries.”
Grieser said finding the balance between Elemental Energy work and Twende Solar efforts isn’t a concern because both involve the passion he first found seven years ago on a roof in Tanzania—solar can change lives.
“A third of the population of the planet has no access or very unreliable access to electricity,” he said. “That’s where our industry can hopefully help the most in bringing power to the entire globe. This power source up in the sky that we’ve all known has been there forever, the technology is just now maturing enough to take over. It’s inspiring and motivating to be around like-minds.”