Final Report: Solar Photovoltaic System Design for a Remote Community in Panama

EPA Grant Number: SU833172
Title: Solar Photovoltaic System Design for a Remote Community in Panama
Investigators: Snurr, Randy , Asthana, Ankur , Fitzpatrick, Joseph , Hohl, Elizabeth , Kessler, Jennie , Lai, Eric , MacDonald, Laura , Mikelonis, Anne , Padvoiskis, Julia , Samson, Mitchell
Institution: Northwestern University
EPA Project Officer: Nolt-Helms, Cynthia
Phase: I
Project Period: September 10, 2006 through June 20, 2007
Project Amount: $9,890
RFA: P3 Awards: A National Student Design Competition for Sustainability Focusing on People, Prosperity and the Planet (2006) RFA Text |  Recipients Lists
Research Category: P3 Challenge Area - Energy , Pollution Prevention/Sustainable Development , P3 Awards , Sustainability


Engineers for a Sustainable World at Northwestern University (ESW-NU) is one chapter of a nationwide student organization that focuses on using engineering to reduce poverty and improve environmental, social, and economic sustainability worldwide. In collaboration with the Panamanian non-governmental organization Centro de Estudios y Acción Social Panameño (CEASPA), ESW-NU has spent the past two years working with the remote ranching community of Santo Domingo, Panama. Located within the mountainous Chagres National Park, Santo Domingo is like many places in the developing world in that it lacks both access to grid power and a feasible and reliable fuel supply. As a result, the community members meet their electricity needs by using car batteries to power common appliances as well as electric fences that protect livestock. While car batteries are adequate sources of power, their usage is unsustainable because they must be transported four hours away to Panama city to be recharged, typically every 3 months. The opportunity therefore existed to utilize a more sustainable and reliable source of energy to improve the community’s standard of living while avoiding traditional energy solutions such as fossil-fuel generated grid electricity, gas, and diesel. Solar photovoltaic (PV) power is particularly attractive for rural applications because it is reliable, modular, independent of fuel prices, nonpolluting, durable and low maintenance.

The ultimate purpose of the project was to design and implement cost effective solar PV power systems to meet the electrical needs of Santo Domingo in a culturally sensitive and sustainable manner. As cattle farming is the main source of income for the community, a key objective was to increase the profits from ranching by implementing a reliable source of power for the electric fencing. Another objective was to design a system that would benefit the entire community. These solutions are based on locally available materials that can be easily maintained by the community, which allow for complete energy independence in the long run. The systems will be well maintained through continued community training as well as regular monitoring, correspondence, and visits. The project has the potential to serve as a model for three similarly isolated communities in Chagres National Park and other such regions worldwide. By sharing the accomplishments of this project with other ESW students and other developing communities, the project can continue to promote a better understanding of how to create prosperity for the planet and its people in an innovative and responsible manner.

Summary/Accomplishments (Outputs/Outcomes):

ESW-NU students installed a total of six fence-charging systems: four in Santo Domingo and two in neighboring communities. The installation of an optimized small-scale system at each ranch was the most effective design because it eliminates battery transport to charging stations, requires no additional work after the initial set up, and results in a longer battery life due to shallow instead of full discharging. A centralized battery charging system was also installed at the local school to serve as an efficient and comprehensive setup that the entire community could utilize. As the school is one of the few public buildings in the village, it provides an inherent sense of community ownership. It is also easily accessible to all residents, which encourages more diverse usage and provides more utility compared to smaller individual charging stations spread throughout the town. Furthermore, the installed system provides lighting in the school, which has led to more community events.

Diego Camaño, one of ESW-NU’s contacts from CEASPA, has been monitoring results since ESW-NU’s implementation in summer 2006. Diego returns to the town bi-monthly to monitor the systems and relay information between Santo Domingo and ESW-NU. Tests from December 2006 showed that all of the existing fence-charging systems were working well. The only common problem was that the shock coming from the fence was weaker than usual, and the cause was later determined to be from fallen branches or loose wires that were shorting, or connecting, the fence to the ground. However, once these obstacles were removed, the shock was strong again.

As a result of this implementation, Santo Domingo has experienced several environmental, economic, and social benefits. Powering the fences with solar panels as opposed to a gasoline generator avoids carbon emissions in the amount of 270 lbs CO2/yr. The economic benefits (reduced cattle mortality and the time and money saved by eliminating travel to the nearby town of Nuevo Ocú to recharge batteries) reduce the pressure on ranchers to clear rain forest and lessen the motivation to kill jaguars, an endangered species, in retaliation for livestock predation. Previously, there was a considerable amount of pollution and greenhouse gases released in both the transit and recharging of batteries without a local system. Compared to charging the batteries with a fossil fuel-powered generator, the school charging system reduces CO2 emissions by about 256 lbs/yr. The increased reliance on local solar power removes all of the emissions due to transporting car batteries.

Moreover, by January 2007 the lighting system had been used for five occasions, including mother-to-mother chats, a town meeting, and holiday festivities. In December 2006, CEASPA and community members also noted that the school had become a good venue for night school and traveling medical clinics, which will lead to far-reaching improvements in the community’s education and health. As with the fence-charging systems, the school solar system saves time compared to charging in Nuevo Ocú: 168 h/yr at the current rate, valued at $147, for all users together. Also, the system is slightly cheaper than charging in Nuevo Ocú, at a fee of $2/charge instead of $3. The fee for cell phone charging is $0.50. These small fees allow the system to pay for itself over time.


P3 Phase I was successful in meeting its proposed purpose and objectives. ESW-NU engineering students effectively designed a reliable system consisting of a fence charging system, town charging system, and school lighting design. The project furthers the prosperity of the Santo Domingo people by maintaining their lifestyle in an economically sustainable way and comprehensively meeting the basic human need for energy. Furthermore, the project succeeded in furthering the prosperity of the planet by utilizing a remote community's natural, renewable resources and reducing pollution emissions and costs from the community's previous means of obtaining energy. The project advances P3 concepts to achieve a better understanding of sustainable energy solutions and the potential for cleaner, more efficient technology in communities worldwide. With the initial round of positive system feedback from CEASPA and ESW-NU's commitment to sustain communications with Santo Domingo, the implemented design serves as a pilot model for expansion into similar communities in Panama.

Proposed Phase II

Project Title: Solar Photovoltaic and Wastewater Treatment Systems Design for Communities in Panama

Project Period for Phase II: June 20, 2007 through June 19, 2009

Objectives and Strategies:

Both energy and sanitation improvements are central to achieving sustainable development goals within communities. Concurrent with, yet separate from the Phase I solar project, a group of ESW-NU students has been working on a project that focuses on improving wastewater treatment in Portobelo, Panama by retrofitting and improving existing ineffective septic tank infrastructure. Phase II of these Panama projects consists of continued monitoring and expansion of the solar pilot studies implemented during Phase I along with the unification of manpower and resources with the wastewater project.

Further work on the solar project will be broken down into three main components: Monitoring, Impact Assessment, and Expansion.


The pilot fence charging system, centralized community charging station, and school lighting system established during Phase I must be monitored to assess the design effectiveness and troubleshoot any problems. CEASPA will report problems via email to ESW-NU, and students will conduct comprehensive surveys during visits to Santo Domingo over the following year. The information collected will be compiled into a common problems and trends encyclopedia that can be passed on to all new project sites.

The impact of the pilot project will be assessed through an evaluation of the effectiveness of the financial structure established within the communities for charging batteries. Additionally, the observational records and data gathered during the monitoring period will provide insight into changing communal electrical needs, projected energy growth rate, and hardware durability. Finally, the NGO and community will gather feedback as to how effective the collaboration of ESW-NU has been within the community and provide suggestions for improvements.


The pilot project will serve as a model for other communities in the region. An ESW-NU alumni member worked with the community of Santo Domingo from August through December 2006 and researched other appropriate Panamanian NGOs and project sites. Concurrent to optimizing the iterative design process and systems within the pilot community, Phase II of the solar project will focus on further establishing these new NGO relationships and selecting two more rural Panamanian communities in which to implement battery charging station systems.

Furthermore, in conjunction with continuing the solar pilot studies, Phase II will build upon the work previously done by ESW-NU students on improving wastewater treatment in Portobelo, Panamá. The ESW-NU wastewater project studies the effects of taking a piece wise approach to community sanitation that utilizes existing structures as the starting point for on-site wastewater treatment. Following year-long project work in conjunction with Northwestern design courses and in collaboration with the Panamanian NGO Foundation for Support of Social Development (FADE), a proposed system has been designed to serve as a cost effective and replicable model. The improvements consist of three components:

    Primary Treatment

    Modification of existing septic tank so that the two chambers flow in series and addition of a third chamber extension to increase sewage settling.

    Secondary Treatment

    Implementation of a lightweight media trickling filter and a sedimentation tank below the filter.

    Sludge Disposal

    Creation of a simple local trailer plus pump cleaning system and construction of a sludge drying bed.

Through a pilot implementation of this system, the performance of the design as well as failure modes and areas for improvement can be evaluated. The site selected for implementation is Portobelo, Panamá, a small town of 1200 people located in the Colón Province of Panama. Currently, most homes discharge their waste into creeks either directly or after minimal treatment. The project will focus on the town’s Guinea neighborhood, which has a particularly significant impact on tourism (Portobelo’s main economic activity) because its sewage runs directly through the town’s historic district after receiving minimal treatment by a poorly maintained and inappropriately sized septic tank. Over the past year, ESW-NU has collaborated with FADE to obtain local governmental approval, survey the plot of land, and collect bench line economic and water usage data.

The three components previously described will be constructed in three phases to comply with Northwestern’s academic calendar and the climate of Panama. The phased approach makes each step more manageable and allows ESW-NU to gauge the relative water quality impact of each additional phase. During summer 2007 primary treatment will be improved through reconstruction of the existing septic tank. Since solids processing is a prerequisite for the trickling filter, a community sludge drying bed will be implemented from December 2007 through January 2008. Then, during the summer of 2008, the trickling filter will be built. All phases will utilize local contractors, labor, and supplies but remain under the supervision of ESW-NU members.

Measurable results and evaluation methods are primarily based on water quality measurements and economic data. Indicators such as fecal coliforms, BOD, TSS, phosphates and nitrates will be measured before and after each phase. ESW-NU will also explore the possibility of partnering with the nearby Colón campus of the Technological University of Panama to support laboratory space for these tests. Each phase will be evaluated based on its ability to bring the effluent within Panamanian environmental regulations. Costs will be recorded throughout the pilot project and an analysis will be performed as to how to further reduce costs in the future. The measured impacts on public health will be based on before and after information from the local health clinic, which is very supportive of the project. Finally, insight into the sustainability of the system will be based on training and feedback from local operators.

Supplemental Keywords:

Health Effects, Public Health, Effluent, Economic Development, Sustainable Development, Clean Technologies, Renewable, Innovative Technology, Environmental Engineering, Civil Engineering, Electrical Engineering, Central America, Panama, Wastewater Treatment, Fecal Coliforms, BOD, TSS,, RFA, Scientific Discipline, TREATMENT/CONTROL, Geographic Area, Sustainable Industry/Business, POLLUTION PREVENTION, Sustainable Environment, Energy, Technology, Technology for Sustainable Environment, Urban and Regional Planning, Environmental Engineering, International, clean energy, clean technologies, sustainable development, environmental sustainability, energy efficiency, energy technology, solar energy, alternative energy source, emission reduction, photovoltaics

Relevant Websites: Exit Exit

Phase 2 Abstract

P3 Phase II:

Solar Photovoltaic and Wastewater Treatment Systems Design for Communities in Panamá  | 2007 Progress Report  | Final Report