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Summer 2013 Blog - Sumin Dong

Sumin Dong is spending eight weeks in Nicaragua working at blueEnergy. 

July 27, 2013

The last two weeks of my internship were incredibly hectic. After realizing that it wasn’t feasible to build the solar powered water pump system for any of the families we had visited in the nearby community, my team and I decided to build a pilot system for a new farm that was getting developed in Bluefields instead. FUNCOS, the local organic farming organization, was in charge of the new site and agreed to fund part of our project.

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Sumin buying supplies.

Although it was a shame that the work I had done for the first few weeks wasn’t going to be implemented, it was also exciting to be given the responsibility to design and install a larger scale system that we hoped to show off to other farmers in Bluefields to promote solar energy and sustainable development.

At first, I was a bit afraid that we would fall behind on schedule due to this change; but thankfully, we were able to pull through and get caught up with our timeline and deadlines. After designing and modeling what the solar energy system would look like and how it would function, it was time for installation. And being a non-profit organization with very limited budget, this meant installing the system we designed with our own hands. In the last few weeks of my work, I went from sitting in front of a computer and carrying out calculations to shoveling dirt out on the field and climbing up roofs to nail down solar panels. And though it was physically difficult at times, it was amazing to be building the system that I had designed with my team. Day by day, I was seeing the system I had modeled out on a computer program come alive by my own hands. From the whole process, I not only became a pro plumber, an electrician, and an expert at solar panel installation, but I also felt a sense of pride and fulfillment of knowing that I had made a difference in the community.

In our lives as college students and young adults, there are many ways we can make an impact on a daily basis—whether it’s through work, community service, or even random acts of kindness—that aren’t always directly apparent or transparent in the positive influences they make. For example, I remember working on a solar and wind energy project for a desalination plant in the Canary Islands for my internship in Spain last summer and wishing that I would get a chance to see the finished product and the positive difference it would make in that community. Though I knew of the environmental and economical impacts the completed project would have, it was still difficult to feel the same sense of achievement because at the end of the day, the outcomes of my work were still limited to the computer screen and the presentations at our office in Madrid.

However, at blueEnergy it was different. Although it might have been a smaller project in terms of the system size, the results of my work were more direct and transparent. After a week and a half of working both out in the sun and under the pouring rain, seeing that water finally flow out through hydraulic pipes I had manually put in made all the tiredness go away. In two months, I was able to design and install a water pumping system solely powered by the sun, which gave people the gift of running water and more efficient irrigation.

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Sumin working in the field.

I originally went to Nicaragua primarily to gain more engineering experience and to perfect my Spanish. In the end, however, the most valuable lesson I took out of my time at blueEnergy was learning how non-profit organizations actually worked and how they differed from industry. Before, the only thing I really knew about NGOs was that their principal purpose was to “do good” instead of making profit. After working at blueEnergy, however, I not only got to truly see how different NGOs were from profit-making companies in terms of structure and objective, but I also got to experience what it feels like to be working for one. From getting to work with a diverse array of people—from volunteers from France to local employees in Nicaragua—to having to troubleshoot problems that I never even imagined happening, such as not having access to certain basic tools and materials we needed for our project, I got so much more out of my internship at blueEnergy than I had expected. In addition to the life skills and lessons I gained from living in a developing country (as I hoped to do when choosing to go there), I also got to figure out more about what type of work I want to do in the future by exploring a different type of life and career style.

Though this might not been the most exciting or relaxing summer I’ve ever had, it was definitely an incredible summer that gave me a life experience that I wouldn’t have had if it wasn’t for Cal Energy Corps or the skills and opportunities I gained from my time here at Cal. And as corny as this might sound, I honestly think that the things I got to see and experience in Nicaragua were so powerful that I wouldn’t be lying if I said that this summer changed my life.

July 12, 2013

A few weeks back, my team and I from blueEnergy made a day trip to a nearby community called San Sebastián. Our objective was to visit two families who were candidates to become the beneficiaries of the solar-powered water pump system.

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Sumin and her colleagues completing the journey to San Sebastian.

Before making our trip, we  made a diagnosis sheet with questions we wanted to ask and identified spots for measurements we had to take for the project design. In the US one would normally only have to worry about the technical feasibility of the project. Here in Nicaragua one must also consider the social aspect—analyzing the general attitude and desirability of the system—in order to ensure long-term success of the project.

A lot of the communities around Bluefields, which is on the Caribbean side of Nicaragua, are still rural with little modern developments and there is still resentment towards technology. Although it’s clear to us that installing a solar powered system to facilitate crop irrigation will be tremendously beneficial, it takes more than just a speech on using renewable energy—or electricity in general—to help some of the local families understand the value of having such a system. According to everyone who has previously worked with the communities in this region, getting the locals to adapt to new technology has apparently always been the biggest challenge with all the projects that blueEnergy has done. This was a new concept to me; and realizing that many families here on the coastal side of Nicaragua actually don’t want to change their way of living, even if it means having clean water and electricity in order to have lights on at night, was completely eye opening. Back home it’s the norm to have the kind of a mindset that believes that the more technologically developed something is, the better. However, here, things seem to be different.

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Sumin taking measurements for the solar-powered water system.

Anyhow, the trip—although only a day long—turned out to be nothing like I’ve previously experienced and amazing in its own way. We took a panga (a small motor boat) to go through what basically felt like a narrow, curvy river in middle of a jungle for about three hours to get to our destination. Once there, we walked for about half an hour in the pouring rain through the mud. In order to get to the actual community we had to cross mini-rivers and streams by making bridges with the logs and wooden panels we found. Once we got to our destination we went to the two houses of the families, asked them about their daily lives and their water situation, and went through the diagnosis that we had prepared. It was interesting to talk to these families and hear what they had to say about how things were on this part of Nicaragua. In addition, it was exciting to be able to ask all the social and technical questions and analyze the sites myself to plan for the solar system that I was supposed to design and install with Erin (the other intern from Cal Energy Corps who was placed to work on this same project with me).

People often say that in a “normal” summer internship for undergraduates, it’s common to get stuck doing mundane tasks and office work even when you’re there to be an engineering intern. However, being here in Nicaragua and getting the opportunity to not only have my own solar system project to design and install, but to also get the chance to meet and pick my own beneficiary through a formal diagnosis process, as well as getting field experience is amazing. I feel truly blessed to be here, and to be given this opportunity.

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Sumin and Erin with their supervisor at a home in San Sebastian.

I’ve not only learned the importance of understanding the people and the community in terms of their social norms and expectations when it comes to introducing a new technology, but I’ve also been exposed to seeing the contrasting life styles and cultures as result of having (or not having) energy or clean water. Promoting sustainable development and improving sanitation are the main focuses of blueEnergy; and what I have learned here apart from the technical knowledge and the professional experience I’ve gained is that awareness, education and understanding are sometimes the more crucial components that need to be given attention to when it comes to trying to help the undeveloped become more “developed” as defined by our modern world.

I love being here in Bluefields, Nicaragua. And though I only have two weeks left, I’m excited to see what more I will learn and become aware of in the time that I have left working here with blueEnergy.
June 15, 2013

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Sumin enjoying another rainy day in Bluefields.

Being here, I’m learning to appreciate water a lot more. Even though I’ve lived in Oregon for half my life, where rain is pretty constant for 9 months out of the year, I have never grown to really like rain. For me, rain has always just meant wet clothes, wet shoes, possible damage to phones and other electronics, slippery roads and pretty much everything I’m not very fond of. But living here, and having experienced the last bit of drought that Bluefields has been suffering through, my perspectives on rain and water has completely changed.

The assumption that there is always running water to clean with, to flush the toilet with, or even to simply wash my hands with, is gone. Sure, there is the water from the well that we can use for these purposes, but there is a difference between constantly having to get buckets of water from the well to do these simple daily tasks and having running water in the house.

In fact, the sad reality of Bluefields (as well as many other parts of Nicaragua) is that much of the well water is often contaminated. Thus, rain—as a clean and abundant source of water—has become a symbol of sanitation and survival, and a gift from nature for many people here in Nicaragua (and for me as well). I had spent the past twenty years always wishing for less rain and running for the indoors whenever water started falling from the sky, now I go outside to see and feel the cool breeze and see the world get soaked whenever the clouds roll by.

Now I think I can truly understand why people put on such extravagant festivals here to celebrate the beginning of the rainy season, such as the Palo de Mayo festival that I wrote about in my first blog post. Hopefully when I go back to the US, or even Korea, I will think twice before leaving my water on while brushing my teeth and reflect back on what the situation was like here in Nicaragua where I learned not to take water for granted.

June 7, 2013

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Women dancing in costumes to represent their communities during the Palo de Mayo festival.

It’s already been two weeks since I came to Bluefields, Nicaragua. Though it seems like it was only yesterday when I flew here from Managua on the 12-person airplane, looking back, a lot has already happened.

From day one everything was an adventure. From witnessing the Palo de Mayo festival, celebrating the beginning of the rainy season on the day we arrived, visiting the local farm and various households to observe our organization’s past projects, to dancing under the joined hands of the locals through the dusty city streets in the Tu-lu-lu celebration, being here has been anything but dull. In fact, because Bluefields serves as a home to six different ethnic groups—Rama, Miskito, Creole, Garifuna, Ulwas and the Mestizos—living among the locals here has been like living through a multicultural and multilingual exposition.

As for my actual internship, I’m here with three other students from Berkeley to work at blueEnergy, a French-American non-profit organization that focuses on using renewable energy to combat water and sanitation issues in rural parts of Nicaragua. During my two months stay here, I will be designing solar powered water pump systems for nearby communities to help people gain better access to water while promoting green energy.

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A new well being drilled for the blueEnergy house.

Having spent most of my first week getting trained and settled into this new environment, I’m still at early stages of my technical work. However, I’ve already learned so much from blueEnergy in ways I didn’t previously expect. Above all, one of the things about blueEnergy that made me rethink the way I perceive technology is that one of our objectives is not to come up with some new, cutting-edge machinery, but rather to find ways to apply previously developed technology to underdeveloped countries to promote economical and sustainable growth. For example, instead of trying to develop more complex and high-tech solar panel designs, we focus on finding ways to use the previously tested and trusted models to satisfy the needs of rural communities that lack basic daily needs. In the fast-paced world we now live in where everyone is trying to build things that are “harder, better, faster, stronger,” it is eye-opening to see this new approach to research and technology development, and I’m excited to see how working here for the summer will continue to change my views and help me grow as an engineer.

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