When I told my friends that I was travelling to South East Asia for my winter holidays, they thought I was off on another one of my random yearly vacations.
Instantly envious, they imagined I would be spending my holidays relaxing on a tropical island… Little did they know that I was travelling to Phnom Penh, the capital city of Cambodia, for an internship. The company I interned with is an exciting engineering start-up called Okra Solar.
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Okra Solar and their mission
Now before I explain how I ended up there, you might ask – who is Okra Solar? And what are they doing in Cambodia of all places?
Okra Solar is a technology company that builds solar energy sharing networks to give remote villages access to clean, cheap and reliable electricity. As an average Australian, basic access to electricity is something we probably take for granted.
We use a kettle to make ourselves coffee in the morning, we get stressed when our smartphones have less than 20% charge, and most of us have a good connection to the internet through which we can share information with the whole world.
But the fact is that even today, 1.2 billion people live without any access to electricity. That’s almost a fifth of our planet’s population – and Cambodia happens to be one of the key countries affected by this problem.
Around 30% of Cambodia’s 16.2 million people are still living off-grid, which means that these villagers are in places so remote that the main electricity grid hasn’t reached their area yet. This gives them three main options:
1. They can purchase a battery which they have to charge using expensive diesel fuel. A diesel engine is usually shared amongst a huge community and the villagers usually travel long distances to reach them.
2. Villagers can install a solar home system. This option is becoming more popular, but unfortunately most families don’t have the savings to purchase a solar home system nor the ability to get a loan. There are also frequent blackouts and energy wasted during the day when the battery is fully charged.
3. If they can’t afford option 1 or 2, they have to continue living without electricity.
To solve the issues of blackouts and energy wastage, Okra Solar came up with the brilliant idea of connecting the solar systems in the houses together to create a first of its kind distributed micro-grid.
This allows houses to share electricity between each other – and it works wonders. One house may be a heavy user of electricity during the day, while another house uses energy at night.
Because there is so much variation in energy consumption patterns, micro-grids allow power to be distributed more efficiently and stored wherever it is needed.
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Okra allowed me to work on some great projects to develop my skills as an engineer. From week one, I had my chance to make an impact by building and testing several Okra controllers so that they were ready to deploy in the villages.
I had to test whether the current, voltage and temperatures of different parts of the controller were in the allowed ranges during different modes of operation. It was very rewarding to apply knowledge obtained from my courses at the University of Sydney to real life.
My second major task was to collect a summary of this data and visually present it on a website – allowing Okra and the Solar Energy companies to quickly view critical information such as energy consumption per household.
I accessed Okra’s databases and used a programming language called SQL to collect the information that I wanted. This allowed me to apply my knowledge of electrical circuits and programming, which I learnt as part of my studies in Mechatronic Engineering.
It was really exciting for me to work in a start-up culture where you can take responsibility for many important projects.
I quickly learnt that it’s up to you to define your role in the company. I was always involved in small tasks for the company, such as researching the threat of lightning strikes on the Okra grids and participating in team meetings.
When the team wasn’t working hard in the office we would be off exploring some new places around Phnom Penh or trying out new places to eat! I loved working in Phnom Penh as I got to to live like a local, get immersed into the Cambodian culture and learn about their history.
One of the highlights of my work experience was travelling to an off-grid village called Kbal Damrei, a 4 hour drive away from Phnom Penh.
I helped set up Okra’s second off-grid network, connecting 5 more houses in a beautiful community. A woman in the village told us how she used to travel almost 10 kilometres by foot to charge her phone using diesel fuel at a local station.
Now she can do that from the comfort of her own home. I realised the potential of electricity to change people’s lives in terms of more productivity, better education and employment opportunities, as well as having access to simple life pleasures such as a televised football match, or the ability to sit and chat with family in a well-lit room – things so many of us take for granted.
And to know that the Okra controllers I built and tested are going to give more houses access to electricity, is a very humbling feeling that I’ll always keep with me.
My time with Okra was very fulfilling and I wish them the best going forward.
As I reflect on my journey so far at the University of Sydney, I realise how grateful I am to the university for supporting me in taking my education outside of the classroom and opening my eyes to opportunities internationally as well.
Through study abroad programs and career fairs that promote companies based all over the world, I have been supported in seeking new experiences and challenging myself in ways I hadn’t even thought about a few years back.
– Zarif Aziz