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U of T engineering students light up low-income Mexico City community

U of T students Andy Liao, Ernesto Diaz Lozano Patiño, Alejandro Sarellano Acevedo and Mackenzie de Carle earned a $20,000 prize for their proposal to install solar-powered street lighting in low-income Mexico City neighbourhood

Solar-powered street lighting can improve safety and promote community development

A team of U of T engineering students is providing solar-powered street lighting for a low-income neighbourhood in Mexico City.

“Because it’s so dark at night, people don’t feel safe, both from a crime perspective but also from a hazard perspective,” says Ernesto Diaz Lozano Patiño, a member of the team. “There are holes they can trip in, and kids are walking around them. We felt like we could make a big impact.”

The team's efforts are supported by US$20,000 they received by placing first in the Student Passport Initiative, an international competition that challenges students to meet a critical need by providing new or upgraded electrical service in an underprivileged domestic or international location of their choice. It was sponsored by ELECTRI International, a non-profit foundation of the U.S. National Electrical Contractors Association (NECA).

For the project, the U of T team focused on Toltenco, an informal settlement situated on the southern rim of Mexico City. Its approximately 800 residents have an average household income of US$135 per month and live without access to basic city services, including street lighting.

The team includes Sneha Adhikari, Mackenzie de Carle, Andy Liao, Greg Peniuk, and Alejandro Sarellano Acevedo as well as faculty adviser Professor Brenda McCabe. Together, they researched locally available, solar-powered street light installations that could provide a solution.

With mentorship from Canadian and Mexican electrical contractors, including Larry Tricinci of Beacon Utility Contractors, the team optimized factors such as the height and distance between lights, battery lifetime and brightness in order to develop a proposal that met the community’s needs in a cost-effective manner.

“We divided the project into two phases with different levels of priority,” says Diaz Lozano Patiño. “In the first phase, we aim to put ten lights from the darkest part of the community. As we get more funds, we can add more lights near the entrance to the community.”

Computer rendering of a solar-powered street light in Mexico City’s Toltenco community. U of T Engineering students will use the US$20,000 prize from ELECTRI International’s Student Passport Initiative Competition to make the project a reality (image by Ernesto Diaz Lozano Patiño)

Diaz Lozano Patiño and his teammates at U of T's student chapter of the Canadian/National Electrical Contractors Association (CECA/NECA) worked with TECHO, a youth-led non-profit present throughout Latin America & the Caribbean.

“I used to volunteer with TECHO when I lived in Mexico City, so I knew that they worked side by side with community members in low-income neighbourhoods” says Diaz Lozano Patiño. “If not for them, we wouldn’t be able to do this.”

The $20,000 prize will go a long way toward ensuring success of the project, and the team is seeking additional donations. TECHO will also work with community members to organize their own fundraising efforts. 

The project builds on past successes: earlier this year, the team assisted in the installation of a lighting retrofit at Toronto’s Good Shepherd Ministries that is saving the charity 40 per cent on its electricity bills. In 2016, two team members accompanied a team from Pennsylvania State University on a trip to install a solar-powered water pump in Roatán, Honduras.

In February 2018, the team will travel to Toltenco to oversee the installation of the first street lights.

For Diaz Lozano Patiño, the opportunity is invaluable.

“If we want to be engineers with a global perspective, able to work anywhere in the world, I think we have to go to other places like Toltenco,” he says. “It’s there that you encounter problems that you typically wouldn’t find somewhere like in Toronto. You come back with an open mind and an ability to look outside the box for solutions.”

Read more about U of T initiatives and startups using light.