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Electricity in


Marlene Brown

©1995 Solar Electric Light Fund

©1995 Solar Electric Light Fund

Above: Puttting up the community center system, Phu Tan Commune, Tien Giang Province.

Right: Transporting equipment to the different houses by boat, Long Hoa Commune, Trah Vinh Province.

Above: Puttting up the community center system, Phu Tan Commune, Tien Giang Province.

Right: Transporting equipment to the different houses by boat, Long Hoa Commune, Trah Vinh Province.

Nothing can prepare one for a country like Vietnam! While my visit there was anything but typical, I was able to see and experience Vietnam as it really is. The people were warm and friendly and genuinely wanted to know "foreigners". To them, the past is past and they have moved forward in their lives. Although various wars have devastated their country, none have harmed their spirits. The gentleness of the people and the welcome they offer is enchanting.

I made my first visit to Vietnam in December of 1994, to manage a solar PV installation project for the Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF). The project was a joint venture between SELF and the Vietnam Women's Union (VWU) to install 100 small, one-panel, one-battery systems using the Uni-Kit II package manufactured by United Solar Systems Corp. of Troy, Michigan. These systems were to be installed by locally trained technicians, in locations chosen by the VWU. SELF would provide the materials and the expertise and the VWU would provide the people to be trained as the technicians and "motivators", to sign up families who would receive the systems, and set up a revolving credit fund designed by SELF. The VWU would also be responsible for bringing the equipment through customs and transporting to the various sites. Further in-country technical assistance would be provided by Solarlab, a small group of physicists based in Ho Chi

Minh City (HCMC). They had already completed a number of successful PV projects, mostly solar battery charging stations. They were an important component of the project and became invaluable.

The project officially started a few days after I arrived, when Mme. Phuong and Mme. Sam from the national headquarters of the VWU, based in Hanoi, arrived in HCMC. Mme. Phuong brought me roses and we exchanged formalities and then got right down to business. Throughout the meeting, I expressed the wishes of SELF regarding what tasks would have to be accomplished while waiting for equipment and before any work could begin. They had a copy of the Project Agreement negotiated by SELF's President, Neville Williams, in Vietnam the previous July. They knew what needed to be done and already had many mechanisms in place for the project they called "Solar Electricity for Rural Women and Children." They had trained "motivators", sent them out to the various communities, and had families signed up to receive small residential systems. The I EC (Information, Education, Communication) material was prepared by the VWU, including an owner's manual translated into Vietnamese.

SELF had originally approached the VWU in February in Hanoi, to see if they were interested in helping to bring electricity to some of Vietnam's 60 million people (out of 72 million) who had no access to grid electricity. They were. The VWU has 11 million members and is one of the most powerful and effective organizations in the country. The major funding for this project was provided by a grant from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund, and a contract with Sandia National Laboratories' Renewable Energy Design Assistance Center and the U.S. Department of Energy.


Within the next few days, the training started at a school just outside HCMC. They brought students from each of the four selected communes in the south. Some were from the district and some from the province in which each commune was located. (The term "commune" is still preferred, rather than "village". A commune is a collection of small hamlets.) There were 10 students and Mr. Luu, who was hired by SELF, interpreted. The whole process was a learning experience. In order for Mr. Luu to translate correctly, he had to clearly understand what I was saying. I had prepared a training manual previously, but found that only the most basic information was applicable to the training, as the students didn't have any previous background in solar or any other technical applications. I realized that most of my material was too technical for them, and rearranged what I taught to make sure the students understood the most important concepts about solar and electricity. Mr. Luu explained to me that the training had to be slow and clear, so we took lots of breaks and went over concepts many times.

The students liked my "American teaching method." I

Below: Putting up the panel with help of the community, Long Hoa Commune, Trah Vinh Province.

Below: Putting up the panel with help of the community, Long Hoa Commune, Trah Vinh Province.

would teach for a while, take a break and then ask each student a question. They were all very sharp. Mr. Luu and I would try to trick or confuse them, but they would always give the correct answer. Almost immediately I knew that they were capable of this project and I had complete faith in them.

Five communes in three provinces were to be beneficiaries of this project. At the time I was in Vietnam, training and material was only available for four communes in two of the provinces in the Mekong Delta in the south. The fifth commune, in Nghe An Province, is in the north and had material delivered for installation in late 1995.

Delivery of Materials

The equipment, which had been shipped by sea from the U.S. well over a month before I left, arrived during the training of the technicians. The VWU told me that after the training was completed the technicians would ask every day where the materials were. They didn't understand the process the equipment had to go through before it could be allowed into the country. After waiting a week, we were finally allowed to collect the equipment. I was terrified as I watched the customs representatives open boxes. I kept telling these folks to go slow and take it easy because some of the equipment was fragile. They respected my wishes and even left some boxes unopened, probably because of the crazed American woman! Anyway, the equipment arrived safely at the VWU offices, and within a few days the rest of the equipment arrived by air.


The next obstacle after getting the materials was finding someone to fill and charge the Trojan 70 Ampere-hour batteries. Since batteries are essential to the PV system, it was important to find someone to do the job who was capable and reliable. I found a battery company which was regularly used by Solarlab. I met with them and they were a good candidate for the job. They were familiar with deep-cycle batteries and could charge the batteries at the offices of the VWU. I had the battery company give a warranty to the VWU, who will have to work with them if there are any problems with the batteries in future. Those batteries that were checked were charged sufficiently and were in good condition. One extra battery was left in each commune as a spare in case of any problems. So far, there have been no problems related to battery failure.

The Systems

100 small residential home systems were completed in four communes in two provinces in the Mekong Delta in the south of Vietnam. Each Uni-Kit II system contained one 22 Watt amorphous panel, a frame, wire

Above: Transporting packaged system from Trah Vinh Town to Long Hoa Commune, Trah Vinh Province.

with integrated plugs to keep the polarity correct, a charge controller, and two 8 Watt lights. We had to make two fundamental changes to each system. One change was to the frame. Since the houses were made out of bamboo and rebuilt every few years, the frame was changed to put the panel on a pole next to or attached to the house. The other change was the use of external switches which turned out to be an ideal way to install the systems. Because the ceilings were quite high it was impractical to turn the lights off from pull chains attached to the lights. It was more convenient to switch the lights off individually from wall-mounted switches. One of the two plugs provided for the load on each controller had to be cut so that external switches could be connected to the system. Manufacturers should include external switches as standard in their kits.

One PV Module 12 Volt Residential LigLting System

Two 8 Watt, 12 VDC Fluorescent Lights

Five community center systems were also installed by Solarlab. I supervised the installation of two of the systems and some of the technicians were able to help with the installation. Four of the systems were basically the same. They consisted of three Siemens PC4 75 Wp panels and a charge controller built by Solarlab. Local deep cycle batteries were used. The frames were built by Solarlab. Wire was obtained locally. Each system was equipped with eight 20 Watt fluorescent lights produced in Vietnam by Solarlab. The systems were also used to power televisions, and VCRs in the future. The charge controller was set up with a feature to switch between two separate battery banks. After the community center battery bank was fully charged, the switch could be flipped to charge batteries from local households. All systems were 12 volts.

The fifth community center system was the same except for the panels, which were six Volt, 495 Wp panels donated to the project by ASE Americas (formerly Mobil Solar). These panels were huge, hard to transport, and even more difficult to mount, but much appreciated. They were ground mounted with a strengthened frame built by Solarlab. The charge controller, batteries and lights were the same as above. This system was set up in Phu Dong Commune in Tien giang Province.

Extra Equipment

We encountered a number of problems when it came to actual installation, and manufacturers should take these into consideration if they want to participate in the third world market. The kits we used were geared for installation in an environment common in the U.S. but not in the third world. Apart from the changes already mentioned, we needed all kinds of extra equipment. Extra plugs, more wire ties, nails (not screws), different sizes of wire nuts, some type of chain and hooks to hang the lights, some electrical tape, and more than one extra fuse should be included with every kit. If a kit is sent to a developing country like Vietnam and reaches a community without the aid of an "international expert", none of these items would be available, except in the cities. Items such as wire nuts were not obtainable anywhere, and I spent a lot of time trying to find them.

It doesn't matter how much time is spent in preparation, there is always something that will inevitably be left behind. The most important information I could give anyone going to Vietnam and especially a remote area is if you want something in

Below: Women's Union representative installing a light.

Phu Dong Commune, Tien Giang Province.

Systems r

Three Siemens PC4 PV Modules 225 Watts

Three PV Module 12 Volt

Community Center System

Three Siemens PC4 PV Modules 225 Watts

Extra Battery Recharging

particular with you at the job site, bring it with you. General electrical tools such as screwdrivers, lineman's pliers, wire cutters, crimpers, and hammers can be bought on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City and many other small cities. DC car fuses and electrical tape are easily obtained also. One item I never found was wire nuts. If you want to use them, bring lots with you. If you need to drop some voltage from a 12 Volt system to a 9 Volt radio or whatever, you should bring a variable resistor or some type item that will accomplish this task. Diodes are available, but you will be soldering them together by hand and somehow wiring them into

Above Top: Technicians installing controller and switches, Phu Dong Commune, Tien Giang Province.

Above: Technicians assembling panel to the frame, Phu Dong Commune, Tien Giang Province.

the system, which is what I did. Another difficulty was finding chain to hang lights. Here in the US, finding hooks and chain is not a problem. Even in the big city, I resorted to going to the animal market and after many hours with a Vietnamese interpreter, it took many days to get 100 meters of chain. I wanted to be able to cut the chain in the Communes, because all the houses are built a bit differently and I wanted to accommodate the homeowner as much as possible in the placement of the lights. Other items to bring would be one multimeter for every two technicians (at least), inclinometers for setting the correct module angle (15 degrees), wire ties, and some type of clamps or hooks to hang wire on the walls. Compasses were extremely hard to find. The only ones I could find were the overpriced fake US army issue or ones with Russian letters. It is best to get lots of these at home and bring them along. Also, make sure you give the same items to all technicians or groups of technicians. Getting work done will go much smoother.

Work Completed: Trah Vinh Province— Long Hoa and Hoa Minh Communes

The remoteness of Long Hoa was remarkable—it took seven hours by car from Ho Chi Minh City to reach Trah Vinh town, the capital of the province. Here we met with Miss Hain, the head of the VWU for Trah Vinh Province. Two of the technicians I had trained from the province, Miss Hain, Mme. Sam (head of the VWU for the district), Mr. Ngyan (my interpreter), and I loaded equipment from the van that brought us from HCMC into a small boat and headed down the Mekong River for a four-hour journey to Long Hoa.

We arrived at the commune, around 4:00 pm. The tide was high and so we had no problem getting the equipment close to the center of the commune and then off the boat into a storage shed. Long Hoa is on an island in Trah Vinh Province and there were no motorized vehicles of any kind. All transportation between homes was by boat or by foot.

Work started the next morning. The first homes were close to the center of the commune and the work went smoothly. Most of the houses were spread out and a boat was needed to go between them. Transportation of materials was the most time-consuming part of the project in this commune. The houses were far apart, and there were many "monkey bridges" to cross. These are literally branches across the water. I had enough trouble just crossing the bridges without carrying equipment, but the technicians had no trouble, even carrying large boxes and batteries. I was impressed.

The technicians learned fast and worked quickly. The technicians from both Long Hoa and Hoa Minh worked together, and this was an optimum situation. The systems were easy to install and there were too many people to put in one system at a time. After the first few installations the technicians split up into two groups. This was their idea and the work went much more quickly. I tried as best as I could to monitor all installations, but some were quite far away and this was not possible. I talked with the technicians about problems and communicated clearly what I wanted done and how it should look.

Since there was no material included in the Uni-Kit to hang the lights, we used heavy wire that we shaped into a hanger. The technicians got quite good at this and came up with some interesting and innovative designs. We were limited by the length of the cord provided with the Uni-Kit for the placement of the panel and the lights. I tried to stress the fact that we wanted the installation to be long lasting but also aesthetically pleasing. Under the circumstances, they did a great job. Solarlab provided us with hangers for the wire. These were small, made out of plastic and breakable. There were some hangers provided with the kits but no small nails, or nails with big heads, which made using these hangers difficult.

We worked long hours, starting early each morning and coming back the first two days after dark. The second day proved to be more interesting. We started early again around 7:00 am. This time we had to go by boat to the first installation. In the morning the tide was extremely low and we had to carry the equipment through about 100 meters of ankle to knee-deep mud. It was really just another time-consuming obstacle, but it provided some interesting photos!

The people of the community loved the PV systems. Most households had televisions, and some had both televisions and tape decks. The tape players were mostly 9-volt and incompatible with the 12-volt system. I was able later to rectify this problem, but not until I got to the second province.

Solarlab provided a small board with two external switches and a receptacle. The receptacle was for standard AC. The problem with using this was that with DC polarity has to be observed. The technicians had to mark each receptacle with the correct polarity. Whenever possible, the TV or cassette player was hooked up permanently. We did not have any AC plugs to provide for the appliances, and this type of setup was not used again.

Each homeowner was responsible for providing a wooden pole. A majority of the sites had excellent solar access and no problems with shading. Some of the sites, however, were completely shaded. I had to tell at

Above: Poster from VWU promoting the project Solar Electricity and Light for Women and Children.

least two families that we couldn't install the system unless they agreed to cut down some trees. Fortunately, they agreed. This type of problem could have been eliminated, and should be watched for in the future.

After the first night, we were able to eat dinner under solar-powered lights. On the first day the technicians installed six systems, on the next day twelve, and on the last day seven. We finished early on the third day and returned to Trah Vinh town for a rest.

After one day in Trah Vinh town and delivery of the equipment from HCMC for the second commune, the entourage headed to Hoa Minh. This commune was about an hour closer by boat to Trah Vinh town and was visibly more wealthy. There was a definite center of town with a central marketplace. Homes were closer together and there were carts and bicycles on the paths. The commune also had a large Catholic church. I was surprised to see such a large church in such a remote place, but I guess the missionaries over the years did their jobs well. I was told that approximately seven percent of Vietnamese are Catholic.

After the first commune was completed, Mme. Sam had to return to Hanoi. The project went smoother when she was around, because she spoke some English and understood the logistics and the politics of the system and the people. She also sat through my training sessions and had a good idea of how the systems worked. She was able to alleviate many problems and people's fears when she was available to answer questions. The interpreter was enthusiastic about solar. He worked alongside the technicians and learned as much as possible as fast as possible. This was helpful, but he had no prior knowledge of any type of solar and I am not sure he fully understood what he was told, so I don't know if he always translated my questions correctly.

The second twenty-five systems were installed in two days. There were more instances of shaded locations, but we shortened the poles and instead of planting them we attached them to the middle of the houses in positions where the panels could be out of the shade. This type of installation was more difficult. It involved a lot of climbing walls and modifying a bit of the house construction, but everyone chipped in and helped.

In Hoa Minh many of the systems were installed in the central market area. This posed a new problem. We had one or two instances in the first commune where the ballast from the lights interfered with the television. This meant that the lights and the TV could not be on at the same time, which would have been all right if this were the situation in each home, but it wasn't. People want what their neighbors have and if the situation is different

Above: PV transport by cycle in downtown Ho Chi Minh City.
Above: Transporting equipment between rice patties.
Above: Marlene donning the local attire.
Above: The happy baby with solar.

from theirs they will let you know. In Hoa Minh, since the houses were so small and were separated only by a bamboo wall, the ballasts from the lights of one house would interfere with the television of the neighboring house. This did not go over well, but I hope all parties were civil! It was explained to me by the folks at Solarlab that the interference is due to the lights and the televisions operating at close to the same frequency. Solarlab also encountered this problem, and found that when they use lights at a frequency different than that of the television the problem is eliminated.

In Hoa Minh, Solarlab provided a board that had two switches only. The television was supposed to be a permanent installation. This became a problem because the system had to be installed using the wire provided. Sometimes the placement of the television was not in an optimum location for the system. The technicians came up with the idea of attaching the plug that had been cut off from the external switches to the end of the cord for the television so that it could be plugged and unplugged easily from the system. This proved to be a good solution. By using this plug the user would not have to worry about polarity because the plug attaches to the controller only one way.

Tien Giang Province—Phu Dong and Phu Tan Communes

Just after Tet (Chinese New Year), the biggest holiday in Asia, I met with Solarlab and we discussed the next part of the project. In the following days, I spent much time in various markets acquiring tools and materials for the second set of communes. For these two communes I wanted to hang the lights from some sort of chain. Mr. Dung (pronounced Zung!) helped me negotiate the purchase of 50 meters of chain from an animal market, and some diodes. The purchase of the rest of the equipment—flashlights, electrical tape, screwdrivers, wire and nails—I negotiated with my new knowledge of a few Vietnamese phrases and numbers. I also spent some hours soldering diodes at Solarlab to help fix the problem of using a 9 Volt cassette player on a 12 Volt system. Since each diode has a 0.7 Volt voltage drop, putting three diodes in series helped reduce the voltage from 12 Volts to under 10 Volts.

Mme. Sam flew down from Hanoi on Feb. 8th, and we left for Phu Dong the next day. Mytho is the capital of Tien Giang Province and we arrived there in about three hours. We met with Miss Mai, and after lunch Mme. Sam, Miss Mai, Mme. Sung, Mr. Knip, Mr. Thong (my interpreter), various other people connected with the VWU, and I, set out for Phu Dong. We drove for about 45 minutes by car to a boat where we loaded equipment.

The boat was run by the Vietnam Coast Guard. The whole situation was interesting to watch. The military men would not work or help until their commanding officer made them. Once they did cooperate, everything was loaded quickly. It took us quite a while to reach Phu Dong because the tide was going down. Once we reached the commune I was met by most of the technicians I had trained, and also by about 100 children. (In the Mekong Delta I felt like the Pied Piper with many children following me everywhere.) I discussed with the technicians how we would do the installations, and other logistics. The party leader was also present because we learned from the first commune that this person wields great influence and if he is around things go much smoother. I told him I wanted someone to help keep the children from coming too close and being in danger. He told me a policeman would be provided.

The next day we began the installations. I demonstrated how to install the first system. They took me to a centrally located, extremely small house and it was hard for everyone to watch. The policeman kept leaving and taking cigarette breaks somewhere else and was generally not much help. It was difficult to get some of the technicians to work and even though my translator was quite good, he didn't know anything about solar and I wasn't sure what he was communicating was accurate. Mme. Sam told me she had to correct him many times because he did not translate what I asked. Even with all these setbacks, we installed five systems on the first day.

The next day fifteen systems were installed. Again, both Phu Dong and Phu Tan communes were represented and we split into two groups. Mme. Sam went to every single house with Mme. Sung before the technicians arrived, to reiterate the purpose of the project and explain exactly what the Uni-Kit consisted of. Later, I found out from Solarlab that the party leader coordinated most of the project within the commune, including lining up the families. The leader of the VWU in this commune was new to the job and not well organized, but the people were receptive to the project and seemed pleased with the systems.

We traveled to Phu Tan, the last commune, mostly by car and motorbike. The people there make their living shrimp farming. We stayed at the Coast Guard headquarters, and there were absolutely no facilities and no clean water—also the head of the VWU in Phu Tan was quite young and not well organized. The houses were far apart and there was much shuttling on the motorbike and lots of walking. However, the first day of work went fine. We split up into two groups and fifteen systems were installed in the first day. Altogether twenty-five systems were installed. Mme. Sam was recalled to Hanoi and did not stay with the project through this commune.

The next day I took a motorbike back to Phu Dong. It proved to be quite close and the road was fine. I met with Solarlab and worked with them for the rest of the day. I moved back to this commune for the night. That afternoon the 500 Wp community center system in Phu Dong was completed and one of two street lights, purchased by SELF from Solar Outdoor Lighting in Florida, was set up that evening in the marketplace. In most rural areas the market closes early, but in Phu Dong the market stays open till at least 9:00 pm every night, so the commune was a perfect candidate for the 75 Wp solar street light.


Some problems could have been eliminated beforehand, but many were solved along the way and will serve as learning tools for the future. In general, the problems were minimal compared to the overall successes. One problem I see is that the technicians have so far only been trained on one type of solar lighting kit, and may have difficulty if they work with other systems. However, the technicians did catch on easily and most tried hard to learn as much as possible in a limited amount of time.

A knowledge of electrical practices in Vietnam would have been helpful before the beginning of the project so that materials and tools would have been better stocked. I had to work with whatever tools and equipment were available. In fact, the only tools on hand for the project were those SELF and I had shipped. More spare parts should have been included with the original shipment. The lack of these made for many problems and worries that could have been avoided, but more were sent afterward.

Because most people were quite curious, especially the children, it was difficult to work. I am trained as an electrician and have had the concept of safety redundantly reinforced, so I found it difficult to have so many children around so close to live electricity. I stressed over and over the dangers that were present and the need to keep the children away. The concept was never understood, not one child was ever moved, and many people thought that I just didn't like children!

I tried to make every situation as safe as possible, but many times I just had to close my eyes to safety. I tried to get the technicians and any others that were helping to use a ladder, but often a person would get on top of a stool which would be put on a chair which was put on top of a table or two. We rewired some televisions that were wired with antenna wire and wrapped in cloth, an electrical nightmare. (I never saw electrical tape in the field, only connections that were twisted. If the connection was wrapped, it was always in cloth.) It is hard to stress safety when there is no way to implement it. The Vietnamese use what they have readily available and make it work. I guess they learned a lot about resourcefulness during their long war for independence, followed by the "American war".


This project is still in the pilot phase, and much has already been learned which will be useful for the future. The Vietnamese people are warm and open and excited about solar. I was the first foreigner many of them had ever seen and in most places the first foreigner they have seen in twenty five years. They couldn't thank me enough for bringing light to their homes.

Solarlab was a godsend. These folks work quickly, are efficient and easy to

Above: Mounting the panel on a thatched roof, Hoa Minh Commune.

Above: The community center system, Phu Dong Commune.

Above: Successful graduates of SELF's training, Ho Chi Minh City

Above: Setting up a streetlight, Phu Dong Commune.

work with, and I enjoyed working with them. Without them the work would not have been as well done.

The VWU is a strong and well-represented organization, and can reach areas of the countryside that would not be accessible in other instances. They are excited about continuing and expanding the project, and the mechanisms are in place for its continuation. I feel privileged to have been part of this project.


Author: Marlene Brown, 207 Cornell SE Apt D, Albuquerque, NM 87106. E-mail [email protected]. Besides rollerblading and African dancing, Marlene is working toward her graduate degree in Electrical Engineering, working at Sandia National Lab in the PV division, and teaching classes in RE through the University of New Mexico's Continuing Education Program. Marlene is still working for SELF and hopes to work on another project in the near future. She will soon have her Journeyman Electrician's License.

Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF), Neville Williams (President), 1734 20th St. NW, Washington, DC 20009 • 202-234-7265 • FAX 202-328-9512 • E-mail [email protected]

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