Micro-Power! Making An Impact on Millions One Home at a Time
In Northern Thailand farmers tend their terraced fields by hand and make do without cell phone service, yet a growing number now light their homes with LED lamps and draw their power from solar panels. Their experience is reflected in rural communities throughout Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa. Solar systems are providing power to villages that the electrical grid, and most other technologies, have not yet reached.
Despite gloomy statistics about worldwide energy access, recent work to power unconnected homes and businesses has actually been a success story. The percentage of people without power has dropped even while the global population climbs. Through its Sustainable Energy for All initiative, the United Nations determines that the rate of energy access increased from 83 to 85 percent in the 2010 – 2012 period.
That said, there are still 1.1 billion people whose homes and businesses stay dark after nightfall, and the rate of improvement is still too slow to meet the UN’s goal of universal energy access by 2030. All of which makes for an interesting challenge that engineers and entrepreneurs are working to solve every day. Three engineers in particular are leading impressive efforts to improve energy access in northern Thailand, India and Tanzania respectively. Their answer to the problem is micro-power generation, which is a power source, such as a solar panel or a wind turbine, that supplies electricity to just one home or one small village. Micro-power generation can be cheaper in rural areas than traditional grid power because it doesn’t require expensive connections to central power plants. This alternative infrastructure is quickly transforming energy access around the world, though many challenges remain.
Each of the three engineers profiled here has different approaches to how they solve the problems of distribution, the way they scale up to provide power to as many people as possible, and how they maintain the systems once they are in place. But the work of all three is already changing lives, and if they meet their goals, stands to change millions more.
In 2004, the Thai government handed out 200,000 130-Watt solar panels to rural communities, of which 23,000 made their way into Karen villages in the Tak province. But the gift didn’t come with a maintenance package, and in a region where farming pays most of the bills, few had the technical know-how or the means to deal with dead batteries and broken charge controllers.
In 2011, an organization called the Border Green Energy Team (BGET) began an experiment to put the solar hardware back to work. In most cases, the panels were fine. Failed inverters, controllers or batteries were usually the culprit. The group’s solution was to sell batteries and controllers with a three-year warranty. Salinee Tavaranan worked with BGET to repair 76 solar home systems in seven remote villages during the project’s pilot. An independent impact analysis firm later surveyed the customers and found that their solar systems saved money compared to the expense of kerosene and candles for lights. And one quarter of them said that they earned more money with the lights on because they could work later.
Salinee, who has a degree in solar engineering, founded Sunsawang to further BGET’s work. Working across a language and a cultural gulf among an ethnic minority who do not speak Thai, Salinee and her team have built a network of technicians trained in solar home system repair and maintenance. The communities have embraced the business, Salinee says, in part because the government demonstrated the mistake of giving away products for free. “They already know the disadvantage of free equipment with no maintenance support. We don’t have to explain about solar because they already know what it is and what it can do for them,” Salinee says.
So far, Sunsawang has sold solar system repairs and service packages to 150 homes, and sold 600 solar lanterns. To expand, Salinee is going after outside investment, betting that her for-profit business model and the urgent need for her product will attract enough money to light 7500 homes in the next five years. Thailand’s overall success in rural electrification, however, has itself squeezed out some of the investment she needs. The country has an electrification rate of 100 percent, according to the World Bank. Investors view Thailand as a job well done and are reluctant to put money into a venture like Sunsawang, according to Salinee. And yet the need for energy access among the people she works with is just as great as across the border in Myanmar, whose electrification rate is only half that of its neighbor.
Off-grid residents of the Indian state of Rajasthan connect to nearby banks of solar panels as nodes on a micro-grid built by the startup Gram Power. Each home has a smart meter that doles out as much power as the customers pay for. Gram Power bills and collects by cell phone in a pay-as-you-go system that has served nearly 25,000 homes so far.
In 2014, the business received a $1 million grant from USAID, fueling its expansion into Kenya. In five years, Gram Power may deliver energy to 2 million households in India and Kenya, according to Yashraj Khaitan. Yashraj co-founded the company in 2010 when he was an electrical engineering and computer science student at the University of California, Berkeley.
The smart meter is at the heart of the business. Through these devices, Gram Power can monitor usage, discover and fix problems and keep everyone honest. “There is a lot of change that we are able to cause with the prepaid model and the smart grid system,” Yashraj says. “It essentially brings about a lot of efficiency and a lot of affordability in power distribution and, in part, consumption.”
Paying up front seems to change consumers’ behavior. “We monitor consumption by the information that the meter is giving, and that ends up making people extremely conscious about their power consumption. They start budgeting their monthly expenses. They automatically switch into more efficient appliances, and it ends up improving billing and payment and collection efficiency dramatically,” Yashraj says.
Yashraj sees a not-too-distant future of widely-adopted smart meters connected to the cloud. “There’s a lot more that can be done once you’re able to get control in the cloud and once you have a large number of smart meters out on the market,” he says. “It’s the same as when smart phones came out: the initial smart phone was not very smart, but the fact that you had that much computing power available in everybody’s hands created a lot of opportunity for a lot more things to be possible.”
Rural Sub-Saharan Africa has the lowest rate of electrification in the world, with new power connections only just keeping pace with population growth. Venturing into that void, one energy startup called Off-Grid Electric lights more than 10,000 households a month in rural Tanzania, and counting.
The company’s distribution model is a hybrid of Sunsawang’s in Thailand and Gram Power’s approach in India. Like Sunsawang, Off-Grid Electric installs solar home systems, but like Gram Power, it doesn’t sell the hardware but rather the service, charging a daily flat rate for each household. The hardware is “next-generation everything” and designed to last, says Joshua Pierce, Off-Grid Electric’s chief technology officer.
Before arriving in Tanzania, Pierce worked in large, privately owned U.S. power utilities and oversaw energy projects for the U.S. Department of Energy. Now he builds state-of-the-art solar systems in Tanzanian villages, where he says he’s inspired by the optimism of the people he works with. “We honestly have built the most sophisticated, flexible and modular small DC solar home system available today,” says Pierce. This innovative work means that Off-Grid’s customers can have more power for their lights and other devices, as well as the peace-of-mind that the system is working properly – and the batteries are charging – at all times.
How to Get Involved
All three of the engineers profiled here work for, or founded a startup. The view that the for-profit model for global development is the best way to make the greatest lasting impact is common in the field. Salinee converted to the idea and now is a champion of for-profits over charity. She has even asked other organizations working alongside hers to stop donating technology, especially when there’s no follow up. “In the first few years we just gave away everything for free and it didn’t last long because all of the technology that we provided needed maintenance and that comes with a cost,” Salinee says. For-profit companies can afford to provide technical support and maintenance, which is the difference between solar panels that stop working after five years and a lifelong energy supply.
Businesses want investors of course. But the field also needs more engineers, though it can sometimes be a hard one to break into. If you’re looking for a career in engineering for global development, see Engineering for Change’s guide for some tips and suggestions on how to get started. Or, you could do what Salinee, Yashraj and Joshua have done and strike out on your own. The obstacles are great and there is much left to do, but the experience of these intrepid entrepreneurs proves the challenge can be met.
Rob Goodier manages the news pages at Engineering for Change, a non-profit organization that promotes technological solutions to the challenges of global development.
Photos courtesy of Salinee Tavaranan and Yashraj Khaitan. Photos of Joshua Pierce by Rachel Ambrose.