IEEE Smart Village Volunteers Talk About Their Trek to the Himalayas

Husband-and-wife duo treks the Himalayas to bring electricity to a remote town

30 August 2017

When IEEE Senior Member Patrick Lee and his wife, Bo, an IEEE member, learned about IEEE Smart Village, they immediately wanted to volunteer. The program aspires to bring electricity to 50 million people in developing regions during the next decade. It is a priority initiative of the IEEE Foundation.

Along with other engineers, the Lees last August hiked some 4,000 meters to Lingshed, a remote Indian village in the Himalayas that has a population of 700. The group installed solar DC microgrids that provide light and Internet access to a 900-year-old monastery and a school. Their expedition was featured on the National Geographic TV series “Breakthrough.” The “Power to the People” episode, which aired in May, is available to stream on Amazon. The Institute interviewed the Lees to find out more about their experience.

What motivated you to volunteer for IEEE Smart Village?

Patrick: I work for Sempra Energy in San Diego, where I currently lead the company in commercializing new power system control technology. Because of my work, I wanted to see how different it was to implement a DC microgrid as a low-cost solution compared to the AC systems I work with.

Moreover, I wanted the first-hand experience of being on an IEEE Smart Village project. I already served on the program’s steering committee, but it was time to walk the walk. I was fascinated by the Himalayas.

Did you have any concerns about the trip? If so, how did you overcome them?

Patrick: I worried about the high elevation and the amount of trekking required. I also was not sure about my ability to adapt to the food and rough environment. My wife and I had medical checkups and received vaccinations to prepare us for the trip. We also did some hiking on the weekends to condition our body. We hiked Mount Baldy near Los Angeles; the peak is just over 3,000 meters. We thought that would be a good test to see if our bodies could handle high elevations. We did fine there, but the actual hike in the Himalayas was tougher for us due to the dusty environment.

Bo: Trekking at high altitude was also my main concern, especially since I had only three months to physically prepare for the trip. That was not enough time. I had secretly hoped my physician would not sign off on my going, but she declared me healthy and in good physical condition. Now I’m glad she did. The trip was an experience of a lifetime!

What were some of the highlights?

Patrick: The experience of being in the village, meeting the people, and eating local food. As was seeing the impressive mountains of the Himalayas. One memory in particular that stands out is when I saw local workers constructing a transmission line with limited resources and under poor living conditions. This was a big contrast to the construction of a transmission line I was in charge of when I worked for San Diego Gas and Electric back in 2012. We had many more resources available to bring renewable energy to Southern California—a stark contrast to bringing renewable energy to a small remote village.

Bo: My highlights were the people we met, both the locals and others who volunteered for the Smart Village program. The students were curious about what we were up to and were not shy about asking questions. They aspire to be doctors, mayors, engineers, and pilots. I hope the technology we brought will help them achieve their goals.

The villagers of Lingshed gave us a warm welcome, and we were always greeted with smiles wherever we went. The fellow volunteers all had a common goal for this expedition, and they worked hard to achieve it. We all became good friends, and I hope to work with them again on future projects.

What was the toughest part of the expedition?

Bo: The bathroom conditions and the lack of showers. We went an entire week working in a dusty environment.

Patrick: After two weeks of Indian food, I was craving a hamburger and fries. That was the first meal I had the day I returned to San Diego.

How are projects such as IEEE Smart Village changing lives?

Patrick: Bringing lights to remote regions means children can read or play outdoors for longer, and they don’t need to suffer from the fumes of kerosene lamps, which would be harmful to their health. Internet connections could also be life-changing for schoolchildren, who could now access the abundance of information available.

Seeing firsthand the immediate reactions of the children in Lingshed when we turned on the lights was life-changing for me. It showed me how such technology can have a significant impact on a small village.

For others who would like to volunteer with IEEE Smart Village or initiatives like it, what advice do you have?

Patrick: There is never a perfect time and place to volunteer. Take a small step beyond writing a check and participate in projects to get the experience of visiting new places and meeting local people. The gain in life experience and sense of accomplishment will be worth the time invested.

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