Peter Werth, center back, with students and teachers from the Shelri Drukdra Lower Middle School, pose under the just-installed wind solar energy unit in Saldang. When Peter Werth III ’80 (CLAS) first visited Dolpa, Nepal – a northern district located in the Himalayas– he became fascinated with the dramatic landscape and the people he encountered. He also witnessed firsthand the geographic obstacles that prevented communities in this region from supporting a modern energy infrastructure.
“I was taken aback by Dolpa,” Werth recalls. “It is probably the most remote place in all of Nepal – if not the world – and it is absolutely energy starved.”
Inspired by this initial trip, Werth established Himalaya Currents, a nonprofit organization that supports sustainable energy and water projects in remote Himalayan villages. Since its inception in 2011, Werth and his colleagues have installed sustainable energy systems used to power schools, healthcare facilities, and residences in several Dolpa villages – significantly altering the quality of life in the region.
The impact of Himalaya Currents is not just felt abroad; Werth has also engaged industry partners in Connecticut and students from UConn and Hartford Public High School’s Academy of Engineering and Green Technology to create energy systems that are custom-designed for the geography of northern Nepal.
“During our last trip, we installed a solar wind hybrid system designed by Hartford academy students that is now powering a school in Dolpa,” says Werth. “It gave the students in Connecticut a real sense of purpose to learn about and help other students halfway around the world.”
“The assignment showed us what it takes to get a real-world project done, everything from designing, researching, manufacturing, and even marketing and logistics,” says junior mathematics major Pravesh Mallik, who was a project supervisor and mentor to the Hartford academy students. “I learned a lot on the project and I applied a lot that I learned at UConn, and vice versa.”
A Passion Develops
Himalaya Currents is an outgrowth of the Werth Family Foundation, which was approached by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) in 2010 to support a renewable energy and wildlife preservation project in Dolpa. WWF representatives invited Werth to join them in Nepal, where they were installing the system that his foundation helped fund
Though this was Werth’s first trip to Nepal, he had previous experience traveling throughout Asia. After graduating with a degree in political science from UConn, he worked for several years for ChemWerth, Inc., a Connecticut-based generic drug development and supply company. He frequently traveled to China, India, and Korea in this position, providing oversight to ensure that generic pharmaceutical ingredients manufactured in those countries met U.S. Food and Drug Administration standards.
“I was familiar with parts of Asia, but Nepal was absolutely mind-boggling as far as the geography and how difficult it was just to get around,” he says.
Werth became fascinated with the Dolpa culture while in Nepal, and was surprised to learn that the regional geography that had preserved the culture for generations was now threatening its continued existence. Villagers explained that Dolpa schools lack the electricity needed to teach advanced curricula, causing students interested in higher levels of education to leave for nearby cities.
“In the cities, they are not taught about their own culture and their chances of returning home are very low,” says Werth. “Essentially it’s a snapshot in history that will disappear as young people leave unless we help preserve and keep that culture in tact.”
These discoveries motivated Werth to establish Himalaya Currents, with the initial goal of finding energy technologies that would power schools located in Dolpa. Sustainable energy is the region’s best option, says Werth, who points out that there is very little access to nonrenewable resources and transportation that might support less costly energy solutions.
“Some of the places we visited are up to a six-day walk from any main roads or transportation, and anywhere between 12,000 to 14,000 feet in altitude,” says Werth. “It’s a challenge, logistically, to get materials there and keep them running after installation.”Parts for the solar wind energy system designed by the Hartford academy students are airlifted into Saldang, Dolpa, Nepal.
Furthermore, any energy system installed in Dolpa must have low environmental impact, due to local conservation efforts for threatened species like snow leopards; it must be durable enough to withstand extreme winters, rockslides, and earthquakes; and it must be self-sufficient enough that villagers can maintain it themselves.
From Hartford to Saldang
One of Himalaya Currents’ first undertakings was building and installing a custom wind solar energy system in Saldang, one of the region’s most remote villages.
“Our mindset was, if we could do it there, we could do it anywhere,” Werth says.
Werth contacted the Connecticut Pre-Engineering Program, an initiative that supports engineering experiences for pre-college students, which engaged 11 students from the Hartford Public High School’s Academy of Engineering and Green Technology and their instructor, David Mangus, to custom design the energy system for Saldang. The Connecticut Business & Industry Association also supported the project.
Mangus in turn recruited Pravesh Mallik ’15, a UConn mathematics major and 2011 graduate of the Academy of Engineering and Green Technology. Mallik was raised in Biratnagar, Nepal until his family relocated to Hartford in 2008.
Given this background, he was particularly interested in the project and was invited to accompany the Himalaya Currents team to install the wind solar system in Saldang.
“I was very excited by the idea of being able to go back to Nepal and build something that is going to stand there for years and years to come,” says Mallik.
During a spring 2013 capstone class, the Academy of Engineering and Green Technology students selected the ideal wind turbine system for the project. The students then put their plan into action over the summer, constructing the system under the supervision of Mangus, Mallik, and Danilo Sena ’15 (ENG), another graduate of the Academy of Engineering and Green Technology who now studies electrical engineering at UConn.
“The Hartford students did a tremendous job, and Pravesh was a great spokesman for the project,” says Werth.
In August 2013, Mallik went to Nepal to receive the system and prepare it for installation in Saldang. But unforeseen circumstances delayed the shipment’s arrival in Nepal, and Mallik was not able to accompany the Himalaya Currents team to the installation site.
Though he was disappointed by this setback, Mallik says that he is still extremely proud of his involvement in the project.
“I got a lot of practical experience. Custom building the system required a lot of knowledge in computer science, mathematics, physics, and chemistry, working in real-world conditions and not just under ideal assumptions,” he says.
Though Mallik was absent in Saldang, he was represented in spirit; after the system was successfully installed, the Himalya Currents team posed with students from the Shelri Drukdra Lower Middle School, along with a vintage UConn banner brought by Werth.
“I’ve always been a proud husky, and I wanted the students in Saldang to know that there were two of us involved in this project,” said Werth.
Werth is currently working toward another trip to Nepal, planned for May 2014, during which he and his colleagues will install sustainable energy systems at new sites in Dolpa. They will also visit the sites of previous instillation projects to see if systems withstood the harsh winter weather conditions.
Werth is also forging new relationships with other nonprofit organizations working in Nepal, such as One Heart World-Wide, which addresses infant and maternal mortality rates in remote rural areas. The partnership would provide energy generated from systems installed by Himalaya Currents to power portable ultrasound machines or small incubators in birthing centers located in Dolpa.
Wherever Himalaya Currents takes him next, Werth says that he will be sure to bring his UConn banner along for the journey.
“People like to know where you’re from, and I always make a point to tell them that I’m from UConn,” he says.
More photos from Nepal