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Photo of solar energy system

He created his own global co-op during the pandemic

Lead image: Costa Rica’s electric grid is almost entirely powered by renewable sources. Photo courtesy of Avolta Energy

How hard could it be to find a country that was accepting foreigners in the midst of a global outbreak of a deadly disease caused by an airborne virus?

Plenty, as Saul Blain found out. But it was going to take more than a pandemic to stop the third-year electrical engineering major from pursuing an overseas co-op. He just had to find one that fit his preference for a Spanish-speaking locale where he could get hands-on experience in the renewable energy sector. So he went to work to make it happen.

“I must have sent 30 cold emails to different companies,” he says. “I scoured Google and Google Maps looking up solar renewable energy companies in Latin America and checking different COVID infection rates.”

A photo of Northeastern student Saul Blain working on his laptop.

“I must have sent 30 cold emails to different companies,” Saul Blain says of how he found an international co-op despite the global pandemic lockdown. Photo courtesy of Saul Blain.

He heard back from one company, Costa Rica-based Avolta Energy, which provides solar energy to homes, factories, and schools. The company designed a solar energy system to power a prototype spacecraft engine and installed solar panels on the roof of a big medical device company to deliver enough juice to power almost 800 homes in Costa Rica.   

The country, which won the United Nations’ top environmental honor in 2019, has embraced renewable energy in a big way, with ambitions of zero net carbon emissions by 2050.

“We are greening and electrifying the transportation sector, the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions,” Costa Rican President Carlos Quesada said in a March interview with the International Monetary Fund. Costa Rica’s electric grid itself is almost entirely powered from renewable sources, according to reports in the Costa Rican media.

The United States, by contrast, has laid out a target to cut greenhouse gas pollution by more than half by 2030, and 100 percent carbon pollution-free electricity by 2035, according to a plan announced by President Joe Biden.

Renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power technology will play a key role.

Blain’s interest in electrical engineering came alive when he took an energy systems course at Northeastern taught by Michael Kane, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering. “That was the class that cemented my interest in this line of work,” says Blain.

He’s using that knowledge on his co-op with Avolta Energy to develop an app that monitors the performance of its installed solar panel systems and identifies problems that may come up with important components such as inverters. They are the heart of any solar panel project, and any error, malfunction, or time offline has a direct impact on energy production and cost savings.

Blain’s app, which he’s working on by himself, solves the time-wasting labor of clicking through and investigating inverter-by-inverter for every plant.

“It’s been identified in the company as an issue and they are looking for a cheap solution,” Blain says. “The idea is to make this easier and display it better to make identifying issues with systems quicker and simpler. Additionally, we can run our own data analysis on the data collected and use it to make projections and understand current generation.”

He designed the logic of the app, determined which software to use, and learned the proper software protocols that allow developers like him to access customer data.

The project has been placed on hold over a software documentation issue that probably means the app won’t be finished before he leaves Costa Rica in mid-May. He hopes to get it over the finish line this summer, when he’s home in Massachusetts.

“It’s a bummer that it didn’t become the big project it could be while I was in Costa Rica, but I’m still grateful for the learning experience. It exposed me to a lot of new tech and helped me develop some new skills, not necessarily pertinent to solar engineering.”

“I want to deliver [the app] to them as it is something I have been working on for a while, and they would certainly get use out of it,” Blain says.

Looking ahead, he also plans to take a 10-week virtual research course run by Northeastern this summer, Pathways Opening World Energy Resources. Topics of research include making solar energy more economical, with a focus on overcoming the challenges to providing clean energy to citizens throughout the world.

None of his work experience in Costa Rica would have likely happened if he had not advocated for himself while looking for an international work opportunity amidst a global health crisis. He has advice for others who want to create their own co-op.

“Throw a bunch of feelers out there until you find something. Going through the process of speaking with professionals, advocating on your own behalf, and taking on the challenge of developing your own opportunity is a worthwhile experience.”

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