Northeastern alumna brings renewable energy to rural Africa
Northeastern alumna Marianne Walpert spends her days bringing affordable, renewable electricity to farmers and fishers in Tanzania.
“These rural families work so very hard, but without access to electricity and modern equipment, they earn very little money for their efforts. It’s nice to be able to impact that without requiring some huge power industry infrastructure,” Walpert said. “This is the essence of what photovoltaic technology has to offer – clean, renewable, distributed electricity generation.”
Walpert, the founder and CEO of solar company Simusolar, has been studying photovoltaic technology since graduate school at Northeastern. After her undergraduate years at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Walpert received an MS in Physics from Northeastern in 1984.
“As a physics graduate student, I was fascinated by the solid-state physics and was able to do some research into the technology thanks to the industry participants in the region,” she said.
While at Northeastern, Walpert loved spending time as a physics TA.
“I was so impressed by the level of responsibility of the undergraduate students. The experience they brought back with them into the classroom after their co-op experiences really made for a great learning environment,” said Walpert.
She also taught for several years at Northeastern’s School of Engineering after receiving her degree, with a class called Photovoltaics; Theory and Practice.
After teaching, Walpert started her own company in California installing solar systems. This was one of the first businesses in the US that installed grid-connected photovoltaic systems. From there, she worked for solar panel manufacturer, Schott Applied Power, and a commercial solar design and installation company, Pacific Renewables.
Then, in 2008, Walpert moved to Tanzania, where she started the non-profit TanzSolar, which sells solar lights for residential areas, and installs systems at health centers and schools. After several years of running this company, solar panel costs had gone down, and LEDs were increasing in efficiency. So, Walpert founded Simusolar.
Simusolar sells off-grid solar packages to help businesses increase their income by using the solar technology. Common buyers are rural farmers who can benefit from solar water pumps, and fishers who can use solar fishing lights. The company uses GSM, global system for mobile communication, to remotely control and monitor their devices. Additionally, the company works to make sure these systems are affordable to rural, low-income agricultural workers by providing a pay-as-you-go system until the equipment is bought in full.
“My favorite part about working here in Tanzania is going out to the field and meeting with the farmers who are able to farm five times as much now that they can afford water pumps,” Walpert said. “I get to meet with the fishers who are so happy to use solar lights rather than kerosene lanterns on the lake for night time fishing. It is amazing how much these tools are impacting their incomes and their lives.”