July '14 Venture Spotlight: United Solar Initiative
USI is a non-profit organization that aims to empower communities through solar energy solutions to allow for adult literacy classes and water filtration. Founder and UNC junior Alex Wilhelm told us about his experience so far.
What is your major?
Where are you from?
Describe United Solar Initiative in 60 words or less.
United Solar Initiative is a non-profit organization that aims to empower communities through solar energy solutions to allow for adult literacy classes and water filtration. Working alongside local solar companies, we work to grow and strengthen the existing solar industry by consulting these companies to become more efficient and sustainable.
What inspired you to start USI?
I believe that solar energy is the solution to the world's energy problems. I started USI because I wanted to develop the necessary infrastructure in developing countries that will allow for the solar industry to be sustainable.
How long have you been working on USI?
I officially started USI 8 months ago after I installed solar panels on a school in Las Glorias, Nicaragua.
What’s it like being a full-time student and an entrepreneur?
It is very difficult balancing the two, but I have amazing people in my organization that take some of the stress away.
You just returned from a trip to Nicaragua to install solar panels. How did it go?
The trip couldn't have gone any better. In only three days, we were able to install solar lighting systems on two community centers and train community leaders on how to upkeep the system. The remainder of the three weeks, I traveled around northern Nicaragua and recognized over 50 communities that we plan to introduce solar to by the end of the year.
You’ve been working on this project for a while. How does it feel to finally have some panels up and operating?
I feel great, but this is only the beginning. The intentions of this trip were to execute a proof of concept and to make the necessary connection in Nicaragua to grow my organization. I am excited because I am now 100% confident that my organization has the potential to bring electricity to countless people in the dark.
What kind of impact do these panels have on the people who live in these villages?
The communities that we work in have no electricity or running water. By introducing solar panels to the community centers, we allow for lights and a solar powered water pump/filtration device. We also work with the Nicaraguan Ministry of Education to ensure that each community center has a teacher who will lead adult-literacy/family-planing classes at night. We don't just provide electricity, we provide community members with the necessities to grow out of poverty.
Where’s the next installation going to be and when are you going?
In September, we have two projects planned in Nicaragua and one project planned in Kenya. In Nicaragua, we will be installing solar on two community centers. In Kenya, we are working with a local solar company to build a micro-grid that will provide electricity to over 40 homes. My partner, Steven Thomsen, will be going to these installations.
Tell us about the support you’ve received for USI from 1789, the Chapel Hill entrepreneurial community and the University.
USI wouldn't be where it is today without 1789. 1789 provides me with the necessary connections to grow my organization on and off UNC's campus. 1789 has connected me with mentors that provide me with guidance and suggestions on how to grow efficiently and sustainably. The space itself allows for me to hold meetings with potential sponsors and partners.
What is your long-term vision for USI?
In the long-term, I envision USI working to grow the solar industry in all developing countries. My goal is to develop the industry on a global-scale to provide energy to areas that the grid cannot. In the next two years, USI will provide solar energy to over 50 communities in Nicaragua and 50 communities in Kenya by working alongside local companies.
An abbreviated version of this interview originally appeared in the 1789 July 2014 newsletter. To read more stories like Alex's, sign up for our newsletter here.