“We’re so entitled here in America and in Takoma Park,” says Joe Kselman, a local resident.
Many people in Takoma Park would agree. Although our lifestyles vary across the city, all of us live in an advanced econ- omy with a high level of infrastructure, security and creature comforts.
“Unless you travel to the third world and see a baby sleeping next to a chicken on the ground of a hut, you don’t really understand,” says Kselman.
Like many others in Takoma Park, Kselman is taking his conviction to areas in which needs are greatest. In his case, it’s to some of the poorest regions of In- dia, where members of the lowest castes live without electricity, clean water and many other things we take for granted in the West.
“What I pay for Net ix can give a fam- ily a new lease on life in India. No one is poorer or more in need than the rural poor of India,” he says.
For nearly three years, Kselman has been raising funds and making trips to India to install solar-electric panels in re- mote villages. It’s an outgrowth of many factors that merged in his life – his inter- est in Buddhism; his marriage to Cristeen, a native of India; his work as a project manager at the University of Maryland’s Energy Research Center; and living in a community of take-charge activists.
“I love living here. People want to have a positive impact on humanity,” said Ksel- man, who moved to Takoma Park in 2007.
Kselman’s journey began about three years ago when he visited India for the rst time. “My interest in Buddhism was the start. The trip was amazing—India has no lack of problems, but it’s a magical place,” he said.
He traveled through the State of Bihar, which contains the Mohabodhi Temple, where the Buddha found enlightenment. In that region, he saw the village of Gua- terine, a place of such poverty and isola- tion that residents are without any access to the electrical grid. Kerosene lamps pro- vided the only source of light.
“I knew I could do something about it,” he said, so when he returned to the States, he tapped into his electrical engineering skills and his contacts at the University of Maryland. A colleague, Shyam Mehrotra, devised the simple solar electric package that would provide reliable, cheap energy.
By mid-2014, Kselman was ready. “I bought a solar panel, a battery and a power inverter, and when I went back to India, I installed it at a school in Guater- ine,” he said. “It was simple, and it cost only about $1,500.”
For the rst time, the school had electric lights and a ceiling fan. Six months later, Kselman delivered two micro-computers, another inverter and a bigger battery.
Helping him on those initial projects was his wife Cristeen and Sunil Sharma, who Kselman met on his rst visit to
India. A resident of New Delhi, Sharma reached out to Guaterine leaders in ad- vance of the installation.
With the school electri ed, the team set about their next project: putting solar panels on 75 homes in Guaterine.
“We put up an Indiegogo campaign for solar lanterns, and before I knew it, we had some funding,” said Kselman. “Cris- teen was helping with all the logistics in country, from nalizing the purchase of the 75 units from the vendor in Patna (the capital of Bihar) to making sure the distri- bution process in Gauterine was ef cient and equitable.”
When that project was done, a more ambitious plan was born. The Kihare Solar Village Project set its sights on pur- chasing and installing 5,000 rooftop solar units in the next three years, starting in Kihare, a village about 10 miles from Gua- terine. An online campaign conducted in March aimed for $10,000 for 175 units.
The organization recently attained 501c3 non-pro t status and is seeking do- nations through social media, as well as applying for grants.
“We built a board of directors, and they’re wonderful. About half are in the U.S. and half in India. Several members are very knowledgeable about battery technology and solar, far beyond me,” Kselman said. Board members have ob- tained deals from solar providers such as batteries that will come with one-year guarantees and can be replaced for $5.
“The idea is to keep it inexpensive and simple. Since these are independent power sources, there’s no government red tape, and the systems are inexpensive to maintain. Our goal is for people in one village teaching people in another village about it,” said Kselman.
The home solar units will support light- ing and will enable people to charge their cell phones. “Even in the poorest areas, many people, maybe as many as half, have cell phones,” he said. “It’s a break- through technology. But people have to walk ve or six kilometers and then pay to charge their phones. This will make it easier and free.”
Reaching the Kihare Project’s ultimate goal of 5,000 solar units will run into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. But ev- ery donation counts, so Kselman plans to step up his campaign in Takoma Park this year. “I’ll be at the Sunday Farmer’s Mar- ket,” he said. “I think the message that ‘we need your help’ will be heard.”
This article originally appeared in the The Takoma Park Newsletter in April 2015 – see original newsletter PDF here