During his Masters in Mechanical Engineering at Bath University, Benjamin Lane took part in a voluntary project to build a wind turbine for a community in Peru that had no access to electricity. Here he talks about the challenges it presented and why involvement in such programmes helps to boost your chances of employment.
How did the WindAid project come about and what did it entail?
I first heard about the project from a departmental email and jumped at the opportunity to take part. Run by WindAid, a non-profit social responsibility organisation based in Trujillo (North Peru), this was a five-week environmental development project during which time eight volunteers built and installed from scratch a 2.5kW wind turbine for an off-grid community (part of the seven million people living in Peru with no access to electricity). Our goal was to utilise the wind to provide an affordable and sustainable source of electricity to the local school and surrounding homes. As with everything in life, the project did come at a cost and I obtained sponsorship from the Royal Academy of Engineers to cover my flights and the project’s base costs.
What were the biggest challenges of the project?
The first four weeks involved the actual building of a wind turbine, getting involved in the hands-on manufacturing and the challenge of conquering the welding technique and getting to grips with the painstaking sanding of the composite blades. Physically, the biggest challenge was playing football in the scorching heat against a local side on a pitch over 2500m in altitude, especially when expectations were high for the British volunteers! Unfortunately after taking an early lead we failed to satisfy the crowd and suffered a 4-1 loss!
The final week involved a completely different set of challenges. After travelling for over 18 hours to the community, we truly experienced the real life and culture of rural Peru, living amongst the locals and sampling the traditional cuisine of ‘Cuy’ (guinea pigs) whilst camping on the floors of their mud-brick houses. During the days on site we worked relentlessly with the locals to install the turbine and wire up the surrounding homes, ensuring the turbine was effectively integrated and ‘ownership’ was passed on to the local community after our departure. Whilst a challenging experience, the local community were hugely welcoming and there was great support from the experienced project co-ordinators.
Have you stayed in touch with WindAid to see how things are panning out with the turbine?
The installation had an immediate and direct impact on the lives of the local Peruvians. The turbine provided lighting in over 12 homes and powered computers in the local school, allowing computer literacy to become an integral part of education, thus giving students and locals the resources and opportunities previously unavailable. Since the project I have been in contact with Michael VerKamp, the founder, who has kept me up to date with any progress with our specific project and news on WindAid moving forward.
What did you learn from the experience?
This project presented a unique and wonderful opportunity to learn more about renewable energy, apply hands-on engineering skills, experience a new culture and become an instrument for immediate and permanent positive change for the local communities. Participating in this placement not only allowed me to apply my engineering knowledge but also provided an exciting new opportunity that could not have been found within cooperate firms, enabling me to gain a true understanding of the challenges associated with life in the developing world.
Do you feel your voluntary work helped you secure your first job?
I was fortunate enough to have secured my first job before participating in the project, but there is no doubt that this kind of experience is a massive opportunity to boost to your employability and distinguish yourself from the rest of the field.
What are your longer term aspirations/ambitions?
The ever changing and complex world of Bain provides an unrivalled occasion to build relationships across the globe with some of the most influential organisations today, and be part of the team setting the agenda. Furthermore Bain’s Social Impact program offers many opportunities to create lasting change in our communities and around the globe.
I hope to get involved in both our grassroots efforts, where employees can determine which non-profits we partner with and on what issues, as well as our company-wide initiatives, such as our initiative to really move the needle on global economic development. This will help me develop as a social leader while continuing to use my skills and knowledge to effect positive change in the world.
What do you enjoy doing outside of engineering?
A main interest of mine is focused on the current environmental problems we face and the solutions at hand. During my penultimate year at university I participated in the 2041 Inspire Antarctica Expedition, which lead me to become increasingly more involved with the student organisations Engineers without Borders and People and Planet.
Last summer I spent six weeks in New York, where I was working for an environmental start-up company called ThinkEco and returned inspired to my final year and led a team of 30 students to build and install the university's first wind turbine.
What advice do you have for young engineers who might want to get involved in similar projects?
There are a huge number of different projects out there, focused on a massive range of different issues and based all over of the globe. You need to decide what it is you specifically want to get involved with – conservational, educational, environmental etc, and where in the world draws you the most. You can be guaranteed to meet an extraordinary group of like-minded individuals from a range of backgrounds.
Always look for external sponsorship to cover the costs of the trip and be persistent - if you never ask you will never know.