Northwestern Magazine
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Eric Lai

Powerful Impact

Last December, Eric Lai spent 10 days in Panama, installing solar panels on the roof of a school so that the tiny village of Santo Domingo would have electricity. The panels provide power for the car batteries residents use to watch TV and light their homes.

When the school’s minigrid went live, it jump-started a small business. Community members generate funds for education by paying the school to recharge their batteries.

Lai, who was born in China and now calls Manhattan home, went to Panama with four other students from Engineers for a Sustainable World. An electrical engineering major, Lai calls ESW a “student group for people who want to change the world.”

He joined ESW at the end of the 2004–05 school year, and the next year he took charge of the organization’s fundraising. In fall 2006 he served as interim president. Lai is a leader in ESW, but overall it’s a “very big team effort,” he says.

Lai helped Northwestern’s ESW team win $75,000 from the Environmental Protection Agency at the P3 (People, Prosperity and the Planet) Awards. The team won the award, which will be used to continue ESW’s work on solar energy and wastewater treatment in Panama, after competing at the EPA’s National Sustainable Design Expo in Washington, D.C.

In his spare time Lai listens to jazz and plays ultimate Frisbee (once Evanston warms up, anyway). He and his roommate of four years have taken up cooking. “We like our meat,” Lai jokes, adding that they also are enrolled in the Norris Mini Courses for wine tasting and drink mixing.

Lai is considering job options for the near future. His big plan: Someday he wants to transform the auto or aerospace industry by using sustainable design techniques.

— Christopher Danzig (J08)

Photo by Bill Arsenault