The PowerHouse School Concept

Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach

In my last post, “Expensive Energy Kills Poor People” , I spoke of the women of Lesotho. In the comments someone asked what I would recommend that they do regarding electricity.

For me, there are two separate questions about the provision of electricity. One is cities and the grid. The other, and for me, more important question regards the folks living in places the grid may not reach for decades. For example, Steven Mosher pointed me to a quote that says of Lesotho (emphasis mine):

lesotho woman

The majority of the population (76%) lives in rural areas, but has strong links to urban centres in both Lesotho and neighbouring South Africa. The majority of these villages lack electricity and the probability of connecting them to grid electricity in the foreseeable future is very low. Grid electricity, being a commercial form of energy, requires users to have a regular income. The income levels in rural areas are generally lower than those in urban areas due to higher unemployment and underemployment levels.

Those are the kind of people who I’ve worked among in the developing world, people way off the grid, the type of people who I met when I was in Lesotho. What can we offer them in the way of electricity, the most adaptable and useful form of energy?

I’ve spent hundreds and hundreds of hours running the numbers on the economics of renewable energy of various kinds in the village. I used to teach the subject to starry-eyed Peace Corps Volunteers. Heck, you know how they say “he wrote the manual” on something? Well … I actually did …

wind systems for pumping waterFigure 1. Peace Corp Training Manual T-25. The ERIC Metadata says: This document was prepared as a training manual for people interested in developing appropriate technological approaches to using wind power to pump water. The training program is divided into two basic formats, one in which a session focuses on the design process and participants are expected to do some design work in groups, and another which uses a preselected design and does not include the design process. Besides providing sets of training guidelines and objectives, the manual describes training sessions which deal with: (1) the history of wind systems;2) large projects and community analysis; (3) shop safety and tool care; (4) representative drawings for construction; (5) shafts and bearings; (6) strengths and testing; … etc. etc.

I bring this up to highlight that I’m not an armchair theoretician about these matters, and that I’ve worked extensively in the somewhat arcane field of village-level use of renewable energy.  So as you might imagine, I’ve thought long and hard about how to provide inexpensive electricity to the poor.

And curiously, the answer presented itself when I was in Paraguay about thirty years ago. I was there to once again put on the wind-power training that is laid out in my manual above. I was out in the outback with a driver going to look at potential wind-power sites, when I saw someone come out of the selva, the local low forest. He was driving a mule hitched to a cart.

And in the cart were a half-dozen auto batteries. I asked the driver what that was about, and I was surprised by the reply.

He told me that the batteries would be owned by several homes and farms far away from the road. There were no power lines anywhere along the road, of course, we were a long ways from the grid. He said the driver would leave the car batteries there by the side of the road, and a truck going to a nearby sawmill would pick them up. At the sawmill, which also wasn’t on the grid, for a small fee the batteries would be charged from the generator powering the sawmill. Then they underwent the same process in reverse. The truck brought them to the mule track, and the mule man took them back to the farms and ranches. There, they used them for power until they were run down.

Brilliant!, I thought. These jokers aren’t letting a little hardship get in the way of having electricity in their homes.

Later, I was talking to a local schoolteacher in Spanish, she had no English. She said that she’d noticed that the kids from the houses with electricity did better than those from the other homes. I asked what the people used the electricity for. Lighting and television, she said. Television? I asked, mystified, thinking that could only stunt their minds.

Yes, she said, they are the only ones who ever hear about the outside world. They’re the only ones who have a bigger vision, of something beyond the selva.

Dang, I thought. That’s how we can power the hinterlands until the grid arrives.

And over the years, I refined that idea into what I call the PowerHouse School concept. I almost got the agreements and the money to do it in the Solomon Islands, but then the government changed, and the tide went against me. Ah, well, the idea still lives. Here’s the elevator speech:

The PowerHouse School is a ten-foot shipping container that is set up to recharge 12-volt automobile batteries and cell phones, using whatever renewable sources are available locally—solar, small-scale wind, micro-hydro, or some combination of all three. It would be run as a for-profit battery-charging business by a school, with the children being trained in the operation, care, and maintenance of the equipment and the charging and feeding of the batteries. It would also sell (by order only, no stock in hand) a variety of 12- and 24-volt lights, equipment and tools. The older students would also be taught the business side of the operation—keeping the books, maintaining the supplies, figuring the profits and losses. Any excess power would be used by the school itself, for lighting classrooms and powering electronics.

The advantages of the PowerHouse School concept are:

• The education about how to use (and more importantly how to maintain) the technology is provided along with the technology.

• The homeowner is not expected to purchase ($$$) the charging system (solar panels, etc.).

• More importantly, the homeowner is not expected to maintain the charging system.

• Students will be trained to do the business side as well as the technical side , supporting entrepreneurship.

• There is no monthly cost to the homeowner. It’s purely pay-as-you-go. This allows participation by those without regular income.

• It uses existing technology.

• It can be sized appropriately, and increased incrementally (one additional solar panel or storage battery at a time).

Finally, it fulfills my own First Law of Rural Development, which states:

If it doesn’t pay … it doesn’t stay.

In other words, if someone can’t make a profit implementing your whiz-bang idea for improving the lives of the poor, your scheme will go to an early grave.

So that was the plan. Never implemented. The numbers sort of worked in the Solomon Islands, it could have turned a profit … if you were creative about the funding of the capital costs. The problem is that you’re looking at some thousands of US$ to set one up, and that would take a while to pay off. Should be doable, solar panels have a long lifetime, as do schools, and the sun is free. But some combination of a bit of grant funds and perhaps a long-term loan might have to be provided.

Regarding the micro-hydro aspect, there are several designs for hydroelectric systems using heavy-duty truck alternators. These put out about a hundred amps at twelve volts, so that’s about a kilowatt. The only issue is moving that power at 14 volts is a problem because you need a big wire size at low voltage. But in fact, they put out three-phase AC, so all you need is to pop out the rectifier that converts the three-phase AC to DC. Then run the AC into a three-phase transformer, and jack it up as high-voltage as you need, depending on the distance. Run your wires from the transformer to the PowerHouse, where you transform it back down to 14 volts, and then run it through the rectifier you removed from the alternator …

Like I said, I’ve put some thought into the question. That’s the best answer that I’ve come up with about how to provide the benefits of electricity to the hinterlands where the grid won’t arrive for many, many years.

Your comment, suggestions, and criticisms welcome,


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Martin Lewitt
September 28, 2013 1:52 pm

Electricity from batteries is expensive, even more so, when they are charged with diesel generators or solar energy. I’m on time of use metering, 15 cents/kwh on peak, 5 cents/kwh off peak the closest thing to making storing off peak and using on-peak cost effective were large systems with external electrolyte tanks. I love your idea, I wonder if just electrolyte could be transported? Lead acid batteries last an order of a magnitude less recharch cycles than lithium ion, making the latter more cost effective despite their greater initial expense.

Man Bearpig
September 28, 2013 1:54 pm

Perhaps this is a project WUWT readers could contribute to ?

September 28, 2013 1:54 pm

A problem I have experienced in the developing world is lack of money. I mean that literally. Coins & currency are often in short supply to non-existent. Maybe some barter system could pay for the recharging station, but many regions of the world lack specie & any way regularly & reliably to get it in commercial amounts. This is true even in cities, not just in remote subsistence, shifting agricultural or hunting & gathering areas.
Much of the world’s total work load is women getting water from distant sources, often unclean. Modern versions of the windmills that used to draw up groundwater in the western US could IMO pay for themselves if the people had some medium of exchange to do so.

September 28, 2013 1:56 pm

Martin Lewitt says:
September 28, 2013 at 1:52 pm
Chile & Bolivia are rich in lithium. Chile is already officially a First World country, but Bolivia decidedly not, despite its large urban populations.

September 28, 2013 2:00 pm

Depending on fuel what about steam engine driven generators, say a series of car alternators as a charging station for 10 or 12 hours a week?

September 28, 2013 2:08 pm

Great idea, Willis. NGO funding, maybe?

September 28, 2013 2:14 pm

This idea was fine at the time, but technology has moved on and solar panels and battery charging modules are cheap and easy to install. All you need is to develop local solar installers and provide them with micro-finance support to allow peasants to buy and pay off the equipment.

September 28, 2013 2:26 pm

What is “grid electricity”? Do you have a formal definition of that term?

Old Engal
September 28, 2013 2:27 pm

Have you looked at compressed air motors? Compressor (2 stage) could be wind or hydro powered. Cheaper and longer life storage option than batteries. Problem has always been storing electricity. Compressed air motor to power generator,lots of possible permutations. Led lighting systems.
Angelo Di Pietro , Ex Daimler Benz, worked on developing the Wankel engine. After leaving DB adapted this for compressed air. Now based in Australia – has cars, trucks and outboard motors running using his compressed air motors. Worth checking out.
Best wishes

September 28, 2013 2:32 pm

Just a question on used batteries. Do the used auto batteries only lose their max amps rating, or do they also lose storage capacity. Maybe the number of charges you can get on a lead-acid battery for lights + TV is much greater than for starting a car. The one problem I do remember is faster self-discharge for the used batteries. Any design mods to convert something designed for a high current motor to something for a low slow current TV?

September 28, 2013 2:37 pm

Years ago peolpe offered instructions for powering 110v tolls from an auto’s alternator. I assume they just modified the regulator and at high RPM put out 110 v.
Could something similar be done to get 110v (or at least double or triple the 12v) from the alternator, run three phase of lighter wire to the village, then put a step down transformer and rectifier at the far end of the “transmission” line.

kadaka (KD Knoebel)
September 28, 2013 2:39 pm

Why only one business? For a long time now, vehicle alternators/generators have been used for arc welders:
Nov/Dec 1980 Mother Earth News
Build a Portable DC ARc Welder for $20
This has been up for about a decade, AC motor driving Jeep alternator for DC Welder, clear wiring diagram. It still shows up on searches, maybe it’s forgotten.
There are also smaller alternators, I have a small cache of Ford 1980-90’s “round lug” that use an external regulator which are freely available as a tractor part, about 30A. You can parallel them, even switch units on/off for rough amperage control.
So set up a welding shop that makes profit, that charges batteries when idle for profit.
But due to the problems of syncing up AC between alternators, it’d be better to direct planned excess capacity to driving a modern electronic inverter using DC to make AC for local distribution, which would be funded by the other profits.
Would expand, but must run. See ya, Willis.

September 28, 2013 2:50 pm

Ah, Willis, this post brings back distant memories of growing up in a two roomed Victorian slum in a small town in Scotland immediately post WW2. There, I’ve given away my age.
Ours was one of the majority of houses which was not, and never had been, connected to the local grid. We had one running cold water tap, lighting was by coal gas or kerosene, heating was the single coal fire, and there was an outdoor toilet shared with six other families.
The sole electrical appliance was an old bakelite valve radio, powered by a large dry cell battery delivering, from memory, something in the region of 100v; and also two heavy lead acid cells.
The battery was purchased (and was quite expensive) from the local music and record store, but the wet cells had to be recharged about every two weeks. It was my job to take these cells (and they were very heavy indeed) to the place that did a swap for recharged ones – at a cost of course.
Unsurprisingly, radio use was strictly rationed in our home. And I never did manage to construct a crystal set that actually worked.

September 28, 2013 2:53 pm

Thanks, Willis, for this important contribution. Various secular and Christian organizations are now providing low-cost solar powered lights for people off the grid in remote regions. These light sources permit children to safely study their school work at night without the hazards of using a kerosene lamp or candle. This is only a small step toward what Willis is proposing, but its apparent success is certainly encouraging. Another major issue of concern for these folk, especially the children, is clean drinking water, and various organizations are also assisting with this need. Imagine how much more could be done for these folk by diverting just a fraction of the money now spent on alleviating imaginary concerns about climate change.

martha durham
September 28, 2013 2:59 pm

Nothing works in these types of areas unless they can be easily and locally sourced. Trying to figure costs based upon US retail – Lowe’s or home depot or some internet purveyor – does not work.
Try getting replacement parts when they have to be imported. Hope you are not an impatient and hypertensive sort.

September 28, 2013 3:02 pm

Talk to the Clinton foundation.

September 28, 2013 3:02 pm

Willis wrote, “And in the cart were a half-dozen auto batteries. I asked the driver what that was about, and I was surprised by the reply.”
I was sure that the next sentence would be something like, “The cart had a generator driven by a system of belts and pulleys connected to the axle thereby charging the batteries as he travelled along.”

September 28, 2013 3:02 pm

As most people don’t know, The Ugly American was the hero of the book. (He was a down-to-earth engineering-type guy who abhorred top-down fancy projects to help the populace.) This thread reminds me of that.
It also reminds me of another practical guy with great ideas for helping the Third World, whose name I forget. He was the hero of the book, The Man Who Tried to Save the World.

September 28, 2013 3:03 pm

The solution should be modular as every placement may have different requirements. The power section should allow for wind, solar, water, steam, draft animal or any other power source you can come up with. In some cases it might make sense to run a wire around a village instead of moving the battery to a charging station. Many ideas to help the poor fail because they don’t take into account the fact that needs differ so the solutions need to adjust to the conditions.

September 28, 2013 3:07 pm

Want electricity ?, you get a stable government and build this (or something like it):
Bigger is more efficient, not the other way around.
And, if only it was so easy.

Martin 457
September 28, 2013 3:11 pm

The idea of lead-acid batteries is nice. Older ones do still work but, are less efficient due to the breakdown of the (sponged lead). I use that term because that’s always what it looked like to me. That same mule can turn a wheel with generators or alternators attached as well. Might be a pretty big wheel though. The batteries themselves break down and leave deposits that settle to the bottom and can create shorts between the plates inside the battery.
I don’t think it would be too difficult to put purge drains on existing batteries though that would both be able to exchange charged electrolytes and at the same time be able to filter out the burnt lead plate material.
Compressed air is stored quite easily and can also be transported and also be used for a large number of devices.

Jim Cudahy
September 28, 2013 3:12 pm

Willis – I suggest that you email/send Bill Gates a copy of this article. If he does not know about it, he’ll probably be very interested.
Jim C

September 28, 2013 3:20 pm

In the days before REA got around to our neck of the woods (1962) my folks charged our batteries with one of these:

September 28, 2013 3:27 pm

Willis Eschenbach says:
September 28, 2013 at 2:46 pm
For US$200 per month for five years, a community could buy this South African wind power & pump combo, installed, with warranty:
Borehole digging would of course cost extra.
But the dirt cheap alternative is making a wind pump out of common materials, which could be maintained by local, semi-skilled labor. Here’s an experiment in South Africa by MA college students, using plastic buckets & rope (interesting once you skim over the obligatory CACA genuflection):
I cobbled together a similar project in Bolivia.
As you may know, the Boers were big into wind pumps historically. If those isolated farmers could maintain late 19th & early 20th century models, I feel that mechanics in Lesotho could learn to do the same. Not all repair parts might be made there, of course, but after seeing the local gunsmiths of Pakistan & Afghanistan, it seems almost anything is possible.
Maybe solar cells will become cheap enough to replace windpumps for remote applications, however.

September 28, 2013 3:29 pm

From my own more limited experience, I can tick micro-hydro and battery availability.
PNG has a classic example of the effect of television. In the 1980s the state-run service had bombed, leaving the commercial service, EmTV. (“Em as in “em nau”.) Enterprising local leaders / communities could get a kit, with instructions. TV, video player, aerial, solar panels, batteries. At 10 toea a session to watch, it could pay for itself in a year. The rule was, 80% of the advertising was to be produced locally, and it produced a number of masterpieces. No western guilt-trip or “me” stuff. Washing clothes? ” … try some of this …” (featuring twin-tub, laundry tub, and bashing on rocks in the river). New vehicle? No solitary vehicle, empty road, 1 or 2 occupants. Truck with a load of people in the back, smiling and waving. “Now you can carry all your wontoks in style”. Public service programs explaining how to set the systems up. Including “don’t bang the side of the TV if the picture goes blurry”. (Surprising the number of movie/tv dramas that have someone banging a TV.)
Another benefit at that time was PNG had not yet signed the International Convention on Copyright. At PNGUT we had AutoCAD 10 within a few weeks of its issue. The Pentagon version that didn’t need a dongle plugged in the back of the PC.

Gene Selkov
September 28, 2013 3:29 pm

Martin Lewitt says:
> I wonder if just electrolyte could be transported?
Not with lead-acid batteries. The lead in the plates needs to change state as well.

September 28, 2013 3:31 pm

Well, I did make a comment regard the ‘grid’ on the original post along the lines of ‘how is the power to be distributed amongst the people and how are they going be able to use it i.e. with appliances’
And yes, I worked in Africa (Congo and Gabon) in the jungle for a while – so I have some first hand experience (granted that was back in the early 80’s though).
Electricity remains and will continue to remain, a ‘point of supply’ fuel for third world contries who cannot easily install a grid system. Such systems are very expensive to install but of course, usually last a pretty long time. In the Lesotho example, if the population is 2million (guestimate), and the alleged investment is 9billion, that works out 4500 per head of population. If we say, folk live in families of 4, that works out at 18000 per household. Now, currently, it is possible to buy a top quality 3kw solar power system for about half that sum.
Surely, in the context of common sense – it would make more sense to install solar power to every household?
It’s a renewable, it’s installation is of course part of the distribution (i.e. no network grid required), and the spare funds could be used for supplying appliances? To my mind, THIS is exactly the logic that should be applied to the forced redistribution of wealth via the IPCC induced government initiatives. I mean, feck it – if they want to do good – do it properly?
just sayin……
. at i use

September 28, 2013 3:39 pm

Willis, small typo …
“For me, there are two separate questions about the provision of electricity. Once is cities and the grid. The other, a”
I think “Once” is meant to be “One”.

September 28, 2013 3:43 pm

I suspect that poor rural folks are more resourceful than many first world folks give them credit for being. When I lived in Korea in the early 1970s, Korea was just making the push to being a major manufacturing country. But they had many many old (1950s) vintage vehicles on the roads. And there was always a guy in a little shop down the road who could make the part needed to fix a broken down vehicle or anything else. Where the technology is not terribly complicated or requires rare metals, I imagine people could do well with a little of the kind of help that Willis suggests and go from there.

September 28, 2013 3:44 pm

One future could be space-based solar beamed to earth, especially to drier regions with clearer air:
Don’t know if power from US satellites would be affordable for Lesotho, without generosity from US tax & rate-payers.
Much of the world’s electrical power system & appliances presently remain susceptible to interruption by coronal mass ejections.

September 28, 2013 3:47 pm

Flywheels can store energy and don’t have a charge-discharge cycle problem
There are “glow-in-the-dark” substances that store more, but solar to LED can illuminate a room.
Sterling engines can use any heat source. There is even one as a desk toy that will run on the heat of your hand.
One possibility would be to do heavy R&D, get patents, license the efficiency stuff to industry/consumer, but use it in these areas.
Perhaps they could sell citizenships – passports. There are enough sovereigns within the evil empire, but some might want to be able to live outside. Can you put a price on fredom?

September 28, 2013 3:52 pm

starzmom says:
September 28, 2013 at 3:43 pm
My experience in Latin America is the same.
When the remote southern Chilean village near which I lived inherited a hand me down fire truck, they were able to keep it going with no problem, despite not have a gas station or commercial garage anywhere close by. The volunteer crew did however manage to burn the truck up while fighting a stubble fire.

September 28, 2013 3:59 pm

Try mini steam. Tiny Tech in India
25kva from steam engine. USD $18,000 for boiler, engine,alternator.
Add your biomass via what ever means and you have your energy problems done!

George Steiner
September 28, 2013 4:01 pm

Using lead acid batteries as a source of electricity for house hold use has some problems. Standard car batteries last for a long time because the are immediately charged as son as the car is running, If they are heavily discharged the number of times they can be recharged falls dramatically.
The deep discharge batteries used in boats can be discharged and recharged more often than car batteries but they are more expensive and require better maintenance,
12 Volt batteries can be connected in parallel or in series to give either more voltage or more current but these connections also have their own problems.
Whether it is 12 Volt, 24 Volt or 36 Volt it is still DC. Most household devices require 120 or 240 Volt AC. You can get this with an inverter but they are not cheap.
Uninterupable power sometimes uses battery banks but they are under constant trickle charge by the normally available AC.
I would put my money on Diesel Generators. They provide the AC at the voltage local devices use, they are reliable and last a long time. Paying for them is a problem if there is no money. But I would rather work on some innovative way of finding the money than providing any battery system.

Bob Dennis
September 28, 2013 4:15 pm

Hi Willis
I agree with what you say. I get to remote Africa time to time and one of the thriving businesses you see are little huts that charge batteries, mostly mobile phone, but also car batteries for running whatever. A couple of weeks back in central Madagascar I saw something even better. I was in a mineral exploration camp staying in a small tent erected inside a grass hut and on returning after dinner was surprised to find 4 or 5 workers sitting around a power board inside the hut, outside my tent, observing while their mobile phones recharged. You can’t get better than that, free power 🙂

September 28, 2013 4:16 pm

Willis, your mention of car batteries suggests another solution that might be to your taste. How about we go through our junkyards, pull a few shipping containers full of alternators from old cars, and send them off to places like Lesotho? I’m sure that if we provide those, the locals will work out ways to turn them using locally available technology – whether that’s wind, micro-hydro, or just a donkey and a few wooden gears.

kadaka (KD Knoebel)
September 28, 2013 4:19 pm

From tz2026 on September 28, 2013 at 3:47 pm:

Flywheels can store energy and don’t have a charge-discharge cycle problem

Flywheels need maintenance, when spinning flywheels fail they tend to effectively explode thus they need heavy enclosures, one sized for even household-sized electrical needs would be considerably heavy. And flywheels by their nature don’t travel well, you could build one into the heavy frame of a vehicle, but then you also have to move the vehicle to move the flywheel.
Don’t forget the fancy electronics involved in magnetically speeding up and taking energy from a sealed flywheel unit.
Doesn’t exactly scream “Suitable for dirt-poor rural communities without service centers in the same country” to me.

Sterling engines can use any heat source. There is even one as a desk toy that will run on the heat of your hand.

And after many decades of trying to scale them up from desk toys to something that can power a house, we’re still waiting for a practical unit.

September 28, 2013 4:23 pm

Dave says:
September 28, 2013 at 4:16 pm
Like the used alternator idea. Micro-hydro would be ideal anywhere there’s running water. My granddad’s backyard water turbine in the Metolius River is still generating power after over 80 years.
Donkey is good, too, though. Plus hyperactive kids.

September 28, 2013 4:24 pm

George Steiner says:
September 28, 2013 at 4:01 pm
Just kidding.

Martin Lewitt
September 28, 2013 4:41 pm

There are several different choices for external electrolyte batteries. The used electrolyte can be returned to the power source for recharging. Perhaps the technology can be simplified with gravity feed, or pedal driven pumps to exchange the electrolyte when needed. When I read about it, it was actually as a cost saving measure that leveraged the costs of the more expensive components.

September 28, 2013 4:41 pm

I had just yesterday purchased a minty copy of Integrated Circuit Projects Volume 1 for 15 cents from the local Goodwill to add to my Forrest M Mims collection of useful books and here he is today commenting. Thank you Forrest for the electronics education you have provided me via you many informative books. The IC Projects Vol. 1 has to be one of your earliest publications.

Claude Harvey
September 28, 2013 4:50 pm

I spent my early childhood on a South Georgia farm with no electricity. However, we did have a superheterodyne, vacuum-tube, radio receiver that was approximately the size of a today’s washing machines and included short-wave reception bands. It was powered by batteries, so listening time was strictly rationed to fifteen minutes of world news and thirty minutes of entertainment shows each night after dinner (or “supper” as it was called in rural areas). Dead batteries meant a trip to the recharger in the nearest town and coins out the door. That was how we kept up with the outside world back in the 1940’s, but it only worked because we could scrape up a few nickles for the recharge. My grandmother sold eggs and butter to get those precious coins. Folks in town (like folks everywhere) had a natural aversion to giving stuff away.
How you could make even such a primitive system as that work in an area where the population has absolutely no disposable cash or goods is beyond me. What’s missing there is “wealth generation” and I have yet to see any government program anywhere produce a net increase in wealth; they simply “redistribute” and more often than not, “unintended consequences” result in a decline in net wealth.
All this is not to say we should not try to improve the fortunes of our less fortunate brethren, but as Willis’ story suggests, something other than what we’ve been doing will be necessary. I haven’t a clue what that different way might be.

September 28, 2013 4:54 pm

Having had some experience with micro loans. The problem is the social structure and who owns it and profits by it.. If the tribe owns it, no one pays for the service and there is no incentive for anyone to keep it going. Somebody has to want to own and profit from the power, water, whatever.

Gary Pearse
September 28, 2013 5:04 pm

Willis Eschenbach says:
September 28, 2013 at 2:46 pm
This is a nice idea and I think it is one that should attract funding – need a nice pitch, a video and possibly a little light and TV demonstration set up. Because to get it started is fairly cheap, it falls within modest budgets of many smaller NGO type organizations (church groups, etc. as mentioned in comments). Your practicality and understanding of the limitations in the vary rural regions is nicely summed up in your comment:
“as soon as it busts the game is up. You need to have the systems in place to repair it and get the parts and the like. There’s a whole social component to technology.”
I can say ”Amen brother” to this. Thirty years ago, my brother, a millwright and I undertook a project for the International Development Research Centre (IDRC)‎ to convert a hand-worked quarry for producing small stone blocks (cement block size) for dwelling construction over to a larger capacity, more modern (but not too modern because they wanted it to be as labor intensive as possible), efficient quarry, slab-sawing and block-splitting operation. We bought a junked steel wire saw from a monument company in Barre, VT, a common construction size air compressor and two rock drills, tools, steel, etc. They wanted us to source materials as much as possible locally but my very practical brother insisted on throwing a few large buckets of bolts and other bits into the shipping container.
They were supposed to have the site some 30-40km south of Moshi, Tanzania hooked up to the grid and we waited about 8 months for their call for us to come over. What we found was 30 km of poles lying down in the ditch and no power. We ended up getting a couple of Soviet generators that weren’t working and made them into one that did – sort of. Wire sawing requires water, clay or cuttings and grit and these have to be balanced 1/3 of each (settled 5 minutes in a coke bottle to estimate). Of course the cuttings build up so you have to periodically remove material from the sump and add water and grit. We were only allowed 2 weeks for training after the plant was running. We quarried several blocks, built the plant, sawed slabs of wall thickness and then split them into blocks with a large guillotine (we made) and sledge hammer. We also had made a jib crane with a couple of telephone poles (hardwood jib and tripod), a barrel of waste steel filled with concrete as a counterweight to which a 3 tonne chain hoist was attached- the jib being the short end to give enough leverage to raise a 5-10t block onto the flat deck of a truck – swung by manpower.
A couple of weeks of this and we left them to carry on. Not long after, we learned that production had stopped. The wire kept breaking which we determined was a result of unsteady power from the generator. I went back, found a Catholic technical training school on the grid near Moshi and they agreed to accept the plant which we dismantled and moved to the new site. We got it working again. The intention was to move back out next to the quarry once the hydro line was completed. Part of the idea was to progress to getting the simple wire saw replicated in Tanzania for use across the country. With the doubt expressed by the Tanzanian partners, I suspect this didn’t happen.
I recommend you contact IDRC (they are into innovative projects) and see what they say or suggest if you wanted to give your plan a try.

September 28, 2013 5:16 pm
September 28, 2013 5:21 pm

daly, that book sounds vaguely familiar but I didn’t recall that. My intro to the semiconductor revolution started with breadboarding off of a Sharp Pocket PC in the late 70’s The unit had a lower power clone of the Z80 with a bunch of extra latches that could be programmed in machine code. The latch lines, the address bus, the data bus, and clocks were all exposed on a small connector on the side. I had a couple projects with 110VAC, but never did burn the thing up.
Years later I have a raspberry pi plus breadboard, but the breadboard is still sitting in the box. Programming on the pi is too much fun all by itself.
The relationship to the topic at hand is that it would be great if the technology sent to the third world could be on breadboards or similar modular connectors. It would be even better if every component were driven by a tiny cheap microprocessor that was software interchangeable with any other component with only the minimum of hardware needed (servos etc). I am not at all an expert on the mechanical side, but a lot of “toy” mechanical building sets are very modular.

September 28, 2013 5:24 pm

Willis, thank you for sharing your wonderful stories! I’ve done some of this work, focused upon conversion of animal manure into methane gas with anaerobic biodigesters. My first design was published by the Center for Community Change about 1980, using geotextile to create a simple, lined digester of plug-flow configuration. These are now common all over Asia, called “CIGAR” (covered in-ground anaerobic reactor).
I’ve worked on pig farms in the Philippines that generate 100% of their electricity for pumps, lights etc. using swine manure gas, burned in a stationary internal combustion engine/generator set. Amazing economics, the engines are just cheap auto engines….when the sulfides cause the engine to seize, it gets tossed & a replacement is easily fitted in. I’ve seen some pretty ugly installations, but the lights come on at night.
Household electricity is an interesting challenge, perhaps we need to break consumption down by the appliance? The One-Laptop-Per-Child (OLPC) program seeks to distribute rather simple laptop PCs to children throughout the developing world, and these units are charged with a small hand-crank on the side. I’ve read where, in many homes, the light from the screen is the only artificial light for the household at night. See Similarly, small radios, LED lights and other appliances might have their own individual hand crank/manual charging device… I have flashlights like this in my home for emergencies. Can’t beat ’em.
Like you, I investigated solar power for very modest applications in my Latin American and Asian farm biodigester projects and found the economics wanting (2005). Perhaps that is changing, but I’m sold on manual charging for small applications. Put a bicycle generator in some houses, everyone would ride it and charge the batteries. Might work. Hell, Americans should do some of that, we are all fat as the Philippine pigs!! Cheers, Willis! Charles the DrPH

September 28, 2013 5:49 pm

Light in a bottle, no electricity required.
I wish I could add more stuff but I am tired, tired and going to bed.

September 28, 2013 5:52 pm

Workable solutions to third world poverty have been available for at least 70 years, yet do not get implemented.
My dad and uncles went to many third world countries in the early 1940s in World War II, bringing all sorts of power generation equipment with them. Much of the equipment was left behind at war’s end. It quickly quit working, after a short life.
The Rural Electrification Act in the US could have provided batteries and windmills to charge them, as it was an available technology. Instead, grid power was extended into the rural areas.
I admire those with the urge to help people in need. I share that impulse to help. But, ideas like this schoolhouse powerhouse are too naive to be effective. One must solve a myriad of social and governmental problems first.
If it were easy to do, the 300 million people in India would all have electric power today. That’s right, one-third of India’s people have no electricity.

David L. Hagen
September 28, 2013 6:05 pm

Brilliant. My compliments Willis
Where there is need for clean water, may I recommend including UV water purification. Ashok Gadgil developed UVWaterworks at Lawrence Berkeley Lab for ultra low cost water purification in developing countries using a UV lamp over flowing water.

September 28, 2013 6:05 pm

Hi Willis,
One of my friends used to be on the Board of Light Up The World (LUTW).
Please have a look at their technology at
LUTW designs solar PV systems that respond to the specific energy needs of families in off-grid communities. A simple solar PV system consists of a solar PV module (to generate electricity) connected to a cable (to transport the electricity), a controller (to regulate the Voltage and Current), battery (to store the electricity) and devices (also called loads) such as a light bulb (which convert the electricity into a useful service, light!). The electricity generated from the solar PV module follows the wiring to the charge controller, battery and the devices connected to the system.
The majority of solar PV home systems (SHS) that LUTW designs are 12 Volt Direct Current (DC). These low-voltage systems provide a basic electrification service that includes lighting and communications (i.e. charging cell phones and powering radios) to small rural homes in off-grid communities. The systems are stand-alone, meaning they are not connected to other electrical infrastructure. Each SHS includes a solar PV module, a charge controller, a battery, LED lights, wiring, switches, DC to DC converter and adaptor to connect other devices such as cell phones and radios. Systems are designed to be modular, which means that they can be adapted and changed over time as demand for electricity changes.
[End of Excerpt]
In summary, LUTW use solar photovoltaic (PV) systems and batteries, which makes sense in their remote applications OFF the power grid, but generally makes NO sense ON the power grid (imo).
You may see where I’m going with this. Billions of dollars have been spent on PV systems connected to the power grid, which are essentially worthless (imo).
Provided these PV systems can be salvaged and used, ship them to the third world and use them to power PV-battery systems in remote locations that are off the grid.
Set up a charity to buy the PV systems at salvage prices , because they will be essentially worthless once the ridiculously high government-enforced PV subsidies end – which should happen soon.
Regards, Allan

September 28, 2013 6:43 pm

Several have commented on availability, many others on distribution and supply.
All valid, but the utter corruption INSIDE the tribal, inside-fighting, intra-religion, intra-nation warfare and barbarism dooms charitable offerings to failure at the working level.
“He who has the AK-47 rules. Kills. Steals. Profits from the local corruption of the useless local governments, and profits from the corruption of the UN agencies who send “climate” monies into the continent and who sell the lands riches out.”
In that way, I like the manual effort required for bicycled-powered generators and solar-powered generators and local household stoves. Corrupt local tribal rulers will never pedal their bikes to get light, but WILL steal the gasoline and diesel generators in nice portable carriers to generate power for THEIR armories and air conditioning and Mercedes and machine guns. A smaller target (less useful generator) is more likely to stay with the people who need it.
But the economy overall cannot grow until the grid, water, roads, and sewage is available. If the governments ever get moral.

Paul. Jackson
September 28, 2013 6:45 pm

Lead acid batteries are attractive due to their ubiquity but their care, maintenance and expected service life makes them a poor choice. A better choice would be the nickel iron battery, they withstand all kinds of abuse you would expect in the boonies of a third world country and still last for decades. Some of the batteries made by Edison battery company are still serviceable in electric cars from the early 1900’s.

September 28, 2013 7:05 pm

From the article:
“Lighting and television, she said. Television? I asked, mystified, thinking that could only stunt their minds.
Yes, she said, they are the only ones who ever hear about the outside world. They’re the only ones who have a bigger vision, of something beyond the selva.”
Willis is making another important point here. We’re all familiar with the meme: TV causes brain rot.
News flash! TV can also cause NEGATIVE brain rot. How so, you ask? Hundreds of years ago, Paracelsus pointed out the following about the majority of toxic substances that were known at the time:
“The dose makes the poison.”
There’s also an old saying in Chinese herbal lore:
Everything is medicine, and everything is poison.
Paracelsus’ brilliant insight turned out to have much greater range of applicability than he imagined at the time. We should explain that to all of the Zero Tolerance fanatics in our midst.
As Willis pointed out, LOW doses of TV can cause INVERSE brain rot. In some developed countries, teachers recommend that parents limit their children’s TV watching to 1 hour per day. In light of Willis’ and Paracelsus’ observations, this makes perfectly good sense.
*steps off soapbox*

Brian H
September 28, 2013 7:08 pm

For some time, a project called LUTW (Light Up the World) ran from a group at the U of Calgary. Seems to be quiescent now, don’t know. Specialized in setting up remote villages with [car batteries charged] by solar or micro-hydro, etc., which powered white LED lighting for homes and schools.

Brian H
September 28, 2013 7:09 pm

typo: car batteries charged by ….

September 28, 2013 7:13 pm

I had seem this awhile back. It’s a “shop in a box”. The group that developed it is using it to make kilns for biochar, but the concept lends itself to the locals being trained as mechanics to build and repair the target system. In your case, something like this could be used to build infrastructure for your electrical system. Once the target system is built it can be moved to the next site.

Matthew R Marler
September 28, 2013 7:32 pm

The advantage of lead-acid batteries is that they are found all over the place for autos. There are better batteries, but the supply chains are not already established. Communal and group ownership of the physical plant is not that uncommon, as in places that have a central solar powered charging facility for all the cell phones. In the US, campers like rechargeable lithium batteries with LED light for reading at night; with a central solar powered charging facility, the owners could carry their camp lights to the charger in the am, and pick them up in the pm. For poor people the outlook is bright (!): production costs are declining consistently.
Similar considerations apply to communally-owned turbines driving automobile alternators, where wind is more reliable or cheaper than sunlight. The idea of off-the-shelf technologies where there are reliable auto shops is appealing.

September 28, 2013 7:47 pm

Seems we have been spending a lot of tax dollars in the hinterlands of Alaska.
Power plant, oil depot(yikes), and medical clinic for communities as small as 300 inhabitants.
Got to wonder how much could have be done in Lesotho (and elsewhere) for 1.1 billion…

Lady Life Grows
September 28, 2013 7:55 pm

Israel has a charity organization called “Innovation Africa.” They have a number of interesting projects including solar cell phone chargers, which make businesses for local people charging Africans’ cell phones (Africa has more cell phones than the USA does). They could probably help you.
Contact synagogues with a description of your projects and the boys and girls (13 and 12) looking for charity projects might be able to finance quite a few of these things. Christians would love it, too. And so would Muslims, I think, where you want to sent things up in Muslim areas.

Kevin O'Brien
September 28, 2013 8:02 pm

I spent 7 years working in Samoa 40 years ago and well understand maintenance needs. If it don’t go its junk. Recently we had a visitor from a college in inland Mumbai and they were going to spend a huge amount to get a 6.5Kw solar cell installation. I did some checking and was surprised how inefficient some alternative choices are. The sort of wind power generator of the scale that can be locally built is good for only a few hundred watts. A small stream can produce a kilowatt AC from a recycled washing machine motor. Solar heat to run a stirling engine can again produce 200w but the technology ramps up. The best was the micro hydro option using the washing machine motors. Solar panel arrays are very inefficient and unreliable as a supply source. Wind is little better.
I like the idea of recycled batteries in a container station. The charging options have to be locally matched with minimum maintenance and electronics and it would be a good project to devise suitable kitsets.

September 28, 2013 8:06 pm

I just finished catching up on some old emails and thought I would share since it is kinda related….. Did ya happen to see this?

September 28, 2013 8:06 pm

I’d only add that the ventilation of the container holding the batteries should be very, very vigorous – LA charging releases hydrogen from the cell….
There are interesting videos on YouTube of the explosive results of battery de-construction.

September 28, 2013 8:30 pm

As mentioned by RACookPE1978, it’s all unstable supply until there is a rule of law.
Meanwhile, for the unstable supply, once people understand that there’s nothing magic about generating electricity, they will build generators and turn them using whatever they can scrounge. The essence of what needs to be installed is that understanding and a willingness to try.
If you really must feel that you have to leave them something material, then make that something a simple multimeter. It’s a basic tool for “seeing” electricity without the pain. They cost about $1 to make in China so one per family would not be a huge outlay for an aid programme. But instead of simply handing them out, the recipients must be able to “pass” a training session in the use of the instrument and have some understanding of what the numbers mean.
Repurposed scrap (alternators, engines, washing machine motors, gearboxes, …) from the cities reduces the stress on the cities while entrepreneurs cart off the likely bit back to their “workshop” to tinker.

Crispin in Waterloo but really in Yogyakarta
September 28, 2013 8:47 pm

@u.k.(us) says:
>Want electricity ?, you get a stable government and build this (or something like it):
>Bigger is more efficient, not the other way around.
>And, if only it was so easy.
I humbly beg to differ. The system efficiency of coal-fired, distributed electricity, calculated from the energy available in the coal, is lower than the application of that coal to a local fire if the application is thermal (heating, cooking). The total emissions (PM, CO and CO2) are less from the distributed production sites (assuming current technologies in both cases).
The system efficiency for electricity generation and distribution for non-thermal applications is higher than local solutions, but only because the technologies offered at a small scale are inefficient, not ‘in principle’. The alternatives are improving every year. Distributed electric power is about 30% of the energy in the coal, typically, with many lower number examples around. The efficiency of combined cycle gasification of coal to electricity is probably going to be more cost efficient on a micro scale that at a large scale because of the low investment and physical risks.
The available solutions for electricity include : TEG (thermo-electric generators) at a few % efficiency. There are two types available: the ≈250 degree ones (Ref Micropelt in Germany) are set by the solder melting temperature and the ceramic ones which operate at about 700C (Ref: Berkeley).
Another is thermo-acoustic generation (Ref: Prof Steve Garrett, Penn State, other researchers in Netherlands, and another group in the UK). This uses resonant sound to vibrate a generator and is actually a form of Stirling engine driven by external heat. The math model for designing these is available free from the Los Alamos thermocoustics lab Steve used to lead (download at their website). It is a universal tool.
Another is small scale steam power driving a single piston engine (Ref Brazil) using wood. Output is in the >kW range.
TEG’s operated on the side of a stove used for space heating do not have to be efficient, the heat passing through them was headed into the room anyway. In Mongolia these units have reached the power output needed to run a TV and lights. The stoves are highly suited to the use of the ceramic version, fragile as they are.
There is a very nice project in Central America that uses the power available at school to charge ‘discarded’ cell phone batteries. Old cell phone batteries which will not run a phone are still very powerful and can run 1 to 3 HE-LED’s for many hours before needing a recharge. A large Motorola battery can run a student’s light for 2 hrs per night for 3 weeks. This is an available resource that is often thrown away, literally. Converting them locally using a soldering gun and HD-LED’s is very easy. Many imaginative versions of this are extant. Obviously they can be recharged using solar panels, car 12 v plugs and mains.
It is also worth mentioning that the use of transported batteries for remote power, mentioned by Willis, is widespread in Africa. In order to maximize the benefits to the consumer, battery manufacturers make ‘TV batteries’ which are specially crafted to give deep cycling, long term service and are fitted with two carrying handles so they can be moved by two people who hold one each. These are available at any battery supplier in Lesotho. They are typically run to zero and charged once per week. They are not ‘float application’ batteries used in cars. Neither are they high current versions typical of fork lifts and golf carts. They are designed for the typical domestic pattern of use.
Solar powered lanterns (numerous), kerosene lanterns with TEG’s, stoves similarly equipped (Biolite) and solar laptop chargers are appearing left and right. There are waterproof cell phone chargers that hang on a lanyard, there are hand-squeezed flashlights (torches). Micro-hydro (multiple, Nepal), ram pumps connected to tiny Pelton wheels (New Dawn Eng, Swaziland), there are a great many options popping up left and right.
I have worked with windmills up to 18 ft diameter in Africa. They are devices that require continuous monitoring and regular maintenance. A TATU survey of water windmills in Transkei (Eastern Cape) showed 80-85% of installed community machines not working at any one time. Even with centralized professional maintenance it is difficult to keep them running because a big storm can break a large number at once. Local maintenance is a huge challenge though not impossible to surmount. The key of course is education and training.

Mike Wryley
September 28, 2013 9:02 pm

Unfortunately, most of you people are confusing the symptom for a cause.
Ever ask yourself why you’re trying to help people with a 4,000 year head start ?

Another Ian
September 28, 2013 9:06 pm

Haven’t got a reference just now, but there is a bloke out of India who is doing things like this and using the village grandmothers as motivators

Another Ian
September 28, 2013 9:18 pm

Re Another Ian says:
September 28, 2013 at 9:06 pm
A quick look on the googler using “grandmothers + solar + power” produces a string of links, of which this is an example

juan slayton
September 28, 2013 9:18 pm

I, too, have had fun playing with car alternators. Got one of those kits to generate DC for universal motors, put it on my old Chevy and it worked fine. They work because the voltage on the car charging system is largely limited by the battery load. Disconnect the battery and the output voltage goes through the roof. This is useful when you want to power your electric drill.
Unfortunately, it was less useful at sea. I was crewing on a 30ft Cal Boat off the west coast of Mexico. The owner had two sets of batteries charged by the marine diesel engine, with a switch to send the power to one or the other set. But flipping the switch would yield a momentary disconnect. When he did this with the engine running it unloaded the alternator and the resulting voltage spike blew every light bulb in the boat–including the bulb in the photo-electric mechanism of the auto-pilot tiller device. It also blew the voltage regulator and thus killed all our generated power until we rigged a field expedient with a big rheostat somebody found in Tehuantepec.
It is true that the alternator generates AC that it then rectifies to DC. But the AC frequency depends entirely on the rotational speed of the alternator, and is generally way above 60 cycle for any useful output voltage. To run the AC through a transformer would require a transformer wound for a specific frequency and mechanical speed regulation to maintain that frequency.
Working with a friend who was into wind power, we once substituted permanent ceramic magnets for the rotor windings. Worked, and allowed us to get rid of the regulator and associated excitation losses, but I’m not sure that was any real advantage.
Car parts in general offer fascinating possibilities for 3rd world applications, being so cheap and plentiful. I shop at Pick-A-Part; it’s good for the imagination .

Robert in Calgary
September 28, 2013 9:19 pm

Light Up The World is still going.

Robert in Calgary
September 28, 2013 9:21 pm

Sorry, missed the link earlier in the thread. Sometimes I start at the end and work up 🙂

kadaka (KD Knoebel)
September 28, 2013 9:26 pm

From CRS, DrPH on September 28, 2013 at 5:24 pm:

(…) The One-Laptop-Per-Child (OLPC) program seeks to distribute rather simple laptop PCs to children throughout the developing world, and these units are charged with a small hand-crank on the side. I’ve read where, in many homes, the light from the screen is the only artificial light for the household at night. See (…)

The built-in crank was a loser, an external version was a loser.

External manual power options included a clamp-on crank generator similar to the original built-in one (see photo in the Gallery, below), but they generated 1/4 the power initially hoped, and less than a thousand were produced. A pull-string generator was also designed by Potenco[37] but never mass-produced.

Hardware specs of earlier versions:

XO prototype, displayed in 2005.
-Power option: built-in hand-crank generator.
XO-1 beta. Released in early 2007.
-Power option: separate hand-crank generator.
XO-1. Released in late 2007. as of November 2007 are:[39]
-Power option: solar panel.

Early crystal radios didn’t even need power. A basic radio takes practically nothing, power with a potato battery or two. For that you can use a crank.
But a laptop?
Keep watching the technology convergence between laptops and cell phones. You’ll see things like rugged iPads with pull-out keyboards that connect by Wi-Fi or cellular that will function as phones. I also expect a pull-out handset for the pocket, basically a cordless phone that only works with the main unit. A compact tough item, everything transportable as one chunk.
In the village, they’ll be cheaply recharged by a woman on a treadle sewing machine who slips the drive belt over to a bicycle generator.

Dan Evans
September 28, 2013 10:17 pm

The comments about just replacing the electrolyte reminded me of the way they supplied electrical power to telegraph stations about 150 years ago. They used a battery called the gravity cell. It had an electrolyte of copper sulfate with zinc and copper electrodes. It wasn’t recharged with electricity but instead the zinc electrode and the copper sulfate were delivered (probably by some guy with a donkey cart). Copper sulfate is a commonly used agricultural chemical and the zinc electrodes can be cast in low-tech foundries. One advantage is that the cell creates a useful byproduct, a very pure form of copper.

September 28, 2013 10:25 pm

tz2060: Can you put a price on fredom?
Can you even spell it? LOL

Grey Lensman
September 28, 2013 10:29 pm

How about a Crispin Mongolian furnace, using wood, coal or biomass, heating water to lp steam.
Use the lp steam to drive a micro steam turbine, magnetic bearings, one moving part, to drive integral 1kw generator. Waste steam then heats water and condenses back to water heater. In summer the neat can fire up an evaporative cooler.

September 28, 2013 10:43 pm

Kev-in-Uk says:
September 28, 2013 at 3:31 pm
If we say, folk live in families of 4, that works out at 18000 per household. Now, currently, it is possible to buy a top quality 3kw solar power system for about half that sum.

Kevin–this is so rational that it escapes most of us who want to help. I often wonder why more solar solutions are not found–I was forced to go to solar when the power company wanted $30,000 to hook my rural home to the grid for the privilaege of paying them every month. Putting in a solar system that runs my 2200 ft home was only $17,000. Gues which way I went? Small soalr setups are so very practical and low tech…People say they are not efficient or cost effective–I honestly haven’t found that to be the case. I had to learn more about electricity than I wanted to, but I’m sure the young people of Africa will be quicker than I was.

Allan MacRae says:
September 28, 2013 at 6:05 pm
LUTW designs solar PV systems that respond to the specific energy needs of families in off-grid communities. A simple solar PV system

Yes–very practical.

RACookPE1978 says:
September 28, 2013 at 6:43 pm I like the manual effort required for bicycled-powered generators and solar-powered generators and local household stoves. Corrupt local tribal rulers will never pedal their bikes to get light, but WILL steal the gasoline and diesel generators in nice portable carriers to generate power for THEIR armories and air conditioning and Mercedes

This is the crux–will the solar be left to the villages and families that need it? In many cases not…why? Mike Wryley is asking the right question–not how can we help, but why at this point in time do they need help? Still?

Mike Wryley says:
September 28, 2013 at 9:02 pm
Unfortunately, most of you people are confusing the symptom for a cause.
Ever ask yourself why you’re trying to help people with a 4,000 year head start ?

Bill Jamison
September 28, 2013 10:55 pm

You don’t have to even leave the US to find families without electricity. It’s estimated that there are 18,000 Navajo households that don’t have it.
Many also don’t have access to running water and must travel miles to fill containers. New solar projects are aimed at making water more accessible for these families.

Bill Jamison
September 28, 2013 10:57 pm
September 28, 2013 11:13 pm

Mike Wryley says: September 28, 2013 at 9:02 pm
Unfortunately, most of you people are confusing the symptom for a cause.
Ever ask yourself why you’re trying to help people with a 4,000 year head start?
Absence of rule of law is the cause.
But then why is there no rule of law?
All too often, people will find a justification – religion, racism, tribalism – to steal from their neighbours. Apparently for many, it beats working.

September 28, 2013 11:44 pm

I see so many criticisms of Willis’ post that are based on entirely rational descriptions of what is more efficient, less expensive, more “sustainable”, etc. But I don’t think you’re taking into account one thing that has been a premier theme on this site. That observations trump theory. What Willis describes is something he has actually seen, observed. These are practical solutions for practical people using practical means. Is it optimal? No. Is it achievable? Yes.

September 28, 2013 11:50 pm

How do you help people who don’t know how to help themselves? My BIL had a successful farm in Zimbabwe. No sign of the farm now. Even the buildings are gone. Yet he now has a successful farm in Australia. Similar things happening in South Africa. Farms being taken over and then collapsing. Once upon a time South Africa used to export a lot of food. Not much now.
I think you must deal with the mindset somehow.

High Treason
September 29, 2013 12:37 am

Capital infusion should be from the members of the Bilderberg group who have been in cahoots with the UN for decades. These big businesses have been prospering at the expense of small and medium businesses for years, so this is fair penance. As for energy storage, how about electrolysis of water with storage of the hydrogen to be burned when ready. The by product is pure water.I had read many years ago about the notion of using metal to store hydrogen efficiently. This was before nanotechnology. Perhaps nano particles of appropriate alloy could negate the need for expensive compressors and tanks. This is where research funding should go, not to BS studies to scare us in to believing global warming lies.

September 29, 2013 12:50 am

A couple of points from a part of Eastern Indonesia where I have worked:
Rural people are in general there without electricity except for the occasional generator fuelled by diesel provided by funds made from selling agricultural products.
Where I worked, there was abundant sunshine for around 6-8 months of the year, with a distinct wet and dry season. It hardly rained at all in the dry season, yet there was no solar power I knew of, because there were no funds to put solar panels in place or provide any ongoing maintenance.
Hydroelectric dams were also been proposed for some areas (it rains heavily in the wet season), but nothing eventuated, due to lack of political will and lack of funds.
However the main problem, on the whole was political. Proposals have been made at times to improve energy availability and farming practices, as well as education, health and roads etc, but these have often been thwarted by corruption (i.e. stealing of funds) and a complicated political structure which doesn’t want change or development. This is worst where there are monarchies, the rulers here have near absolute power, and don’t want their subjects to develop and challenge such power.
What often happens goes like this: outside investors propose to introduce improvements to farming including growing corn, beef etc, the monarchies agree and take an upfront fee, after which they simply change their mind and deny further access. They can do this because they have absolute control over the land and the people, and are generally immune from prosecution. They simply take the upfront investors money and then change their mind-which has occurred so many times it has now become standard operating procedure. Investors are now simply deceived in putting upfront money forward, after which they are denied any further access.
Another example was with the proposed building of a highway. The local King couldn’t build a road, and would probably just steal the funds anyway, so a tender to build a highway was given to someone else, who brought in the heavy equipment, which was then burnt and destroyed on orders of the King, apparently because he didn’t get the tender. The company then left, because the government was not willing to prosecute the King because the King also decides how and who people vote for. The monarchies want to retain their hierarchy and power, and they also control how the majority of the population votes, so they constantly steal any funds for development, remain immune from prosecution, and nothing ever happens. Government officials don’t want to upset them, because they would then lose their veto over who votes for who, so nothing ever happens.
Another recent example was for the development of large scale cattle farming for the burgeoning meat market in Indonesia-parts of Eastern Indonesia are perfect for this-being dry grasslands-but the Kings said no, the government backed down, and the proposal was dead in the water. Indonesia is currently proposing instead to rent land in adjacent Australia for large cattle farms, rather than using its own land which it can’t develop because the local regional monarchies won’t let them.
This has happened multiple times, with proposals for beef, corn, dams, roads, mining, basically everything. Meanwhile, some of the monarchies no longer even live in the areas they control, most of the time they are in Singapore living it up, whilst their own people are amongst the poorest, underdeveloped, malnourished, malaria ridden, and unhealthy in Indonesia. Both the regional and central governments are not willing to take things further, because this would cause tension and political strife. Better let sleeping dogs lie, however under such an arrangement people are malnourished, extremely poor, and have high mortality rates and under-development. Locals in the know say that nothing will happen in such areas unless an old King dies, and someone replaces him who is not so bad, but this could take decades, if at all. But there doesn’t seem to be any real will or movement to challenge the monarchies themselves.
My point is this, unless the local and regional political situation remains conducive to change and development, nothing will improve, whether it be for energy, farming or anything else.

September 29, 2013 12:54 am

milodonharlani says:
September 28, 2013 at 1:54 pm
A problem I have experienced in the developing world is lack of money. I mean that literally. Coins & currency are often in short supply to non-existent.
Milodon, I know this seems a little far-fetched – but what about coining one’s OWN local currency – coined in kW/h ?
All you’d need to achieve that, was a little book-keeping – whis in itself is a valuable lesson to learn for students – and something representing a kW/h for peoples’ daily trade.
This way, ANYTHING would go for currency – even kauri-shells, or something – if people agreed to use it as money among themselves. And they would, because, at the end of the day, they could trade their Kauris for a battery-charge at the power-station.
That way, the power-station would serve as a bank, too, while providing people with cheap, affordable energy.
I like your idea a lot, Willis! Maybe you should give it a try and contact one of the big donoring foundations to get it running, like the Bill-Gates-Foundation, or you may give it a try on Kickstarter.
Micro-banking, berhaps? Also, there are banks around which profess in fair trade and ecological investments – at least over here in over-ecologized Germany.
You rock, Willis! Go for it!

September 29, 2013 1:25 am

kadaka cited: “This has been up for about a decade, AC motor driving Jeep alternator for DC Welder, clear wiring diagram. It still shows up on searches, maybe it’s forgotten.”
In a thread that includes circuit guru Forrest Mims, it is notable that a single diode is a mean substitute for a four diode full wave rectifier that allows an alternator to tax its driver continuously.

Gary Hladik
September 29, 2013 1:26 am

As other commenters have pointed out, even the best-intentioned and best-designed projects will fail in an environment of corruption and violence. I checked the history of Lesotho according to Wiki
and it’s not encouraging. From its independence in 1966 to the rise of the LCD Party in 1997-1998, Lesotho suffered from political instability and outright coups. Since 1998 the country has been more stable, but the LCD Party has retained control of the government. Personally I think reform is more likely when the “opposition” is strong enough to win the occasional election.

September 29, 2013 1:36 am

As all idealistic idea’s they fail to take into account reality. In this case reality is that any expensive apparatus in those countries will be destroyed/cannibalized/stolen/taken over by some local warlord. Don’t forget Africa’s forever wars:

September 29, 2013 2:05 am

I have to agree with the cautionary comments regarding foreign investment and aid into some of these countries. The top down corruption and skimming of funding occurs more frequently in these types of ‘young’ countries – heck, it occurs in our own established democracies!
It is the same with ‘giving’ to big charities – all very well donating a few pounds/dollars, but when you check out some of these charities’ financial records, a large percentage is ‘lost’ to costs and executive salaries. I would always prefer to see smaller localised operations because there is less ‘business’ through which funds can be lost or skimmed.
The point being that simply cyhucking funds around does not always make things better – and can often encourage things to be worse due to the unscrupulous officals, warlords, criminal gangs, etc.

September 29, 2013 2:08 am

They’ve got a few engines, in the forms of trucks and maybe the occasional old bomb of a car. A car engine is pretty powerful. All you need to produce electricity from a car engine is a treadmill for the back wheels, connected to a generator.
They already know how to take care of their car and truck engines – probably better at it than most of us are, because they have to keep them going well beyond the point we’d chuck them on the scrapheap.
So all they need is a bit of help with the generators.
A cheap and nasty generator can be made out of really, really cheap components – for example, instead of making the coils out of copper, they can be made out of plastic coated aluminium, which is a good conductor, but it is a lot cheaper and also a lot lighter than copper (so cheaper to make, easier to transport).

Gareth Phillips
September 29, 2013 2:19 am

In many music festival in the UK such as Glastonbury and Shambala, performers and musicians use solar panels to power their equipment when away from the grid. They’ve been doing this for a fair few years now and probably have a good insight into the most efficient methods of energy generation. Maybe Willis saw similar set ups in Burning man which I would guess gets more sunshine than UK festivals.

September 29, 2013 2:33 am

Interesting Stuff Wilis, tales of your exploits never cease to amaze me! Have you ever come across a gravity fed compressed air system?
First you need a water supply around 80M higher than the workshop, some piping and a pressure vessel. The water enters the pipe at the top, via a cone shaped funnel, that has another cone inside it, the inner cone has a bunch of holes drilled vertically though it (can be made from fired clay with straw to make the holes). As the water runs around the cone it draws in air into the water flow via the holes in the cone, the air is trapped in the flow until it gets to the bottom, where the pressure vessel collects it, pressure should be about 14.7 PSI per 10M of head. It would run a generator, or workshop.
Variations on this theme ran tram systems. City-wide compressed air energy systems have been built since 1870. Cities such as Paris, France; Birmingham, England; Dresden, Rixdorf and Offenbach, Germany and Buenos Aires, Argentina installed such systems.

September 29, 2013 2:56 am

Thanks for posting this Willis. Loved your travelogue, and was even thinking of travelling to Liverpool to see if I could intercept you there, but life got in the way.
There’s a chap in Scotland by the name of Hugh Piggott who teaches people how to build their own windmill. The idea is people pay him to learn as they make a windmill with their own hands. He then gives that windmill to one of his neighbours. Any money he makes is used to finance trips to the third world to show them how to do it.
Using his methodology, it is possible to build a 5kW unit for around £200. For the capstan (the bit that swivels around), one can use the bits from old car axles. He teaches how to actually make your own axial flow alternator using neodymium magnets and wire encased in epoxy resin. He also sells plans over the internet.
I was recently looking for LED lights for a home automation project, and I came across these. They use 6W @ 12V DC, are the equivalent of a 50W incandescent bulb, give off a very bright light, can be dropped and mishandled without worry, can be put directly in a G4 socket, and last north of 20,000 hours, for less than $5 all in. Amazing little things.
Also, Yandex “Listeroid”, a single cylinder diesel engine (there’s also a twin, I think) that runs a generator. These things are indestructible, economical, easy to maintain and some are still in use after 20 years of non-stop service. The EPA have banned them in the US (bedwetting about “emissions”), but you can still buy them in “parts”.
Eventually, I’d like to buy one of these and enclose it in an insulated cabinet to keep the noise and heat in. I would then run the cooling through a large Hot Water Cylinder which would heat water. I think you only need about 70C at the end of the exhaust to lift any smoke away, so all the rest of the heat can go towards heating hot water, so you’re getting a “two-fer”. I haven’t run the numbers yet, but I reckon I can substantially reduce my overall energy bills with one of these things. Over half of the energy used in an ICE is wasted as heat.
Of course, the elephant in the room is storage, and I don’t have any really great ideas on that. If I had the time and money, I would look into flywheels. There’s just one moving part, and no nasties to get rid of. It is possible to make passive magnetic bearings now, and by evacuating any air from the enclosure there are very little “idling” or friction losses. They too could last forever and done right, there’s very little to go wrong with them.
By doing one for a house gives the owner independence, and the flywheels wouldn’t need to be too big, so less worry about them bursting from centripetal forces. For instance, in Formula One racing they have a thing called KERS, which drivers can use to help them overtake other cars. It’s a flywheel that can deliver 60-80kW in a very short burst. I’m not suggesting using one of these for storing home energy, it’s just an example of what is doable now.
That’s the one thing that makes oil so useful. It is its own storage medium. If we could crack that for electricity, and do so on the level of the individual or family, it could be revolutionary.

Lew Skannen
September 29, 2013 3:07 am

After four years in Nigeria I was desperate for any source of power other than generator but in the end I decided it was the only way. I think that oil is the easiest way of moving energy and generators are quite cheap these days.

kadaka (KD Knoebel)
September 29, 2013 3:49 am

NikFromNYC said on September 29, 2013 at 1:25 am:

kadaka cited: “This has been up for about a decade, AC motor driving Jeep alternator for DC Welder, clear wiring diagram. It still shows up on searches, maybe it’s forgotten.”
In a thread that includes circuit guru Forrest Mims, it is notable that a single diode is a mean substitute for a four diode full wave rectifier that allows an alternator to tax its driver continuously.

It’s the same on the Mother Earth News original diagram.
And do you know what it’s for?
The alternator has its own diode pack inside, that single diode isn’t for rectifying the generated AC. And alternators are regularly set up internally as three-phase so a standard 4-way bridge wouldn’t work.
That big single diode is on the Ground (G) terminal, connected to the battery in the diagram. It keeps the electrons flowing in the right direction.
Normally the armature (A) terminal goes to the positive terminal of the battery for charging, after going through the regulator (becomes BAT terminal). Batteries discharge by electrons leaving the negative terminal and entering the positive. The alternator sucks the electrons out of the battery at the positive terminal. The battery negative terminal often goes to a motor ground lead (bolted right to the block) with other frame/body grounds, and that’s it. The alternator returns the electrons by the Ground connections.
For the welder, the Armature runs to the battery negative. The Armature wants to suck in electrons, as wired they would come from the Ground terminal. You’d have a short circuit. The big single diode is a one-way gate, blocking the flow of electrons from Ground to the battery, preventing it from being a short circuit.
When using the welder, electrons flow from battery negative through big diode to Ground, to ground clamp, to rod and rod holder, to battery positive. If that was it then you’d be welding with just the battery. But Armature is sucking electrons from battery negative, shoving them out at Ground, and thanks to big diode those electrons go to ground clamp with the rest.
The problem with the welder as shown is the current always only goes one way through the battery. Forced reverse current flow, aka charging, recharges the battery but also reforms the electrodes. It’ll keep working with a depleted battery, residual magnetism will let the alternator self-energize once it’s spinning. But as it’ll essentially be forcing further draining of a dead battery, severe damage could result.
So make provisions to recharge the battery when not welding. If you use an external regulator, while the alternator is spinning, with creative switching you can have the alternator charge the battery.
And also charge other batteries you have laying around, preferably for profit.

Ralph B
September 29, 2013 3:56 am

I see Bulaman beat me to the steam suggestion. But to elaborate…if you were to have a local do it as a battery charging business (armchair quarterbacking it here) you could teach him the maintenance (use a simple single not triple expansion steam engine to keep the maintenance to a minimum) have the customers pay half the charging fee in wood or other burnable biomass. In the tropics have them pay in copra and the husks.
Alternately, get an old junkyard slant 6 and a gasifier rather then boiler and steam engine. I think the single steam engine and boiler would be less maintenance but their efficiency would be in the single digits.

Geoff Sherrington
September 29, 2013 4:06 am

Hi Willis,
There’s a whole lot of your experience in the statement “There’s a whole social component to technology.”
Outback Australia – if it breaks, it’s often thrown aside. It has to be so, so simple.

September 29, 2013 5:45 am

Willis, I have successfully done quite a few remote (and grid interconnected) systems using wind and small hydro. These ranged from small very large homes (+5000 sq ft) to remote sporting camps. After the enron/de-regulation debacle, I retired and worked as a power lineman for a few years. I am a critic of large scale wind and related projects that are doomed to performance and financial failure.
I have seen plenty of junk and ill sited systems from the renewable bubble created during the last energy crisis including manufacturers who built junk to cash in on the grant money, as do the large scale guys now. I will give you my best advice on wind/hydro and let the solar guys make their own recommendations.
The hydro aspect was a bit more complicated due to environmental concerns but works outstandingly if there are good site and resource availability. One company I really appreciated has an easy to understand guide and offers outstanding tech support.
On the wind side, Bergey Windpower manufacturers the best small wind turbines (to 10kW). They are a bit pricey but well worth it if a reasonable wind resource and site are used.
My favorite battery config is be the Surrette 8CS25PS, 48 volt system. My last big project (back in 2001) used 2 banks connected series/parallel for appropriate storage and utilized stacked Trace (now Xantrex) SW 5548 inverters. The system is still performing flawlessly.
From what I am seeing regarding the energy boom in Africa, there has to be funding available to offset the cost of the better systems. It might be wise for the African government to negotiate any new oil or mineral deal to include funds for these systems.
I no longer have any financial or other interest in the above mentioned companies and make my recommendation based on my past professional experience.
On a side note I will be making my bucket list trip to Alaska next year and plan on doing a little fishing. I will be looking for that guide service you mentioned in a previous article.

September 29, 2013 6:07 am

I believe the essence of the original suggestion is cheapness and availability of spare parts.
Yes, running the grid to all homes in Africa would be best but its not going to happen in our children’s lifetime.
Yes, much better batteries exist than old lead acid car batteries, but cost a fortune by comparison.
Compressed air is interesting but I would not like to be around when a rusting ar reservoir goes bang. (pressure vessels need strict maintenance checks)
As Willis stated, you need a system that locals can ‘own’ or buy into, using skills that they have or can acquire easily.
Old auto parts are ubiquitous, therefore very suitable.
The idea of installing PV panels in lieu of the grid at a cheaper cost is good, but it is a very high cost compared to the original suggestion.
This suggestion could kick start thousands of micro businesses and self help groups, increasing skill levels across a continent.

Gary Pearse
September 29, 2013 6:23 am

Kev-in-Uk says:
September 29, 2013 at 2:05 am
“I have to agree with the cautionary comments regarding foreign investment and aid into some of these countries. The top down corruption and skimming of funding occurs more frequently in these types of ‘young’ countries..”
Scimming, scamming and purloining is probably among the top economic activities in many of these countries – a condition that largely reflects the desperate need for a decent level of economic development. Years ago, I worked for the Geological Survey of Nigeria and one could see in market places Oxfam cardboard drums of rice (A gift to the people of Nigeria from Oxfam) on sale for a penny or two a cupful. These likely were “distributed” by the minister (perhaps) of health and his family. I mentioned this once to an Oxfam fellow who strenuously denied this to be possible.
Boots-on-the-ground projects are necessary to get anything worthwhile done. In my experience (mining industry) NGOs ARE the stumbling block in trying to get real investment based on natural resources into play. It introduces jobs, technology and infrastructure. I think the NGO establishment are largely on safari and don’t want to really see much development. South Africa’s shooting of protesting miners unfortunately has added another black eye in this sector for NGOs to point to.

September 29, 2013 6:33 am

Here is a little more about a do it yourself hydro (least cost).
As with any remote electric system, know your resource and what the expected energy consumption will be.

September 29, 2013 7:09 am

Sounds like a great idea to me. It also leads me to wonder why it’s not being done already. I would expect someone would have tried this before. Maybe maintenance and spare parts would be the problem. There is lots of examples of people bringing technology to poor regions and that technology eventually becoming neglected and unused, and usually the problem is the ability to maintain.
It makes me think of the Inuit in Canada’s north. They are given subsidies and lots of welfare due to their relative poverty and their remote location. They have snowmobiles that are provided by the federal government. Perhaps some communities are more self-sufficient, but I do believe this is usually not the case, most income is and goods are provided by Canada’s federal government in the form of welfare.
Anyway, the point is, that when their snowmobile breaks down, they leave it by the side of the road, get a ride home and leave it there. At home they ask the government for another and they are given another free snowmobile. While waiting for the new snowmobile, they sit at home and do nothing.
The relative poverty of the community does not change.
This makes me think there is nothing wrong with your idea, but that it won’t work anyway, for the reasons described above.

September 29, 2013 7:17 am

A donkey cart an d driver may not be necessary to transport the batteries back and forth to the powerhouse school. Instead, the larger kids could use two-wheeled shopping carts to carry a battery a day to and fro for their families and near neighbors (the latter for a small fee). An adult could lift the battery in and out, if necessary.
These shopping carts fold up and so could be hung from a hook in a wall when not in use.

September 29, 2013 7:34 am

kadaka, very informative, thanks.
I ripped out the dozen clogged up pollution control pods from a 1979 Landcruiser and smashed them open for fun but I had never even been curious about alternators enough to discover not four but six big diodes in there, which I have now finally seen on EBay:
In 3rd grade I built a blue ribbon motor from iron nails and card stock and now make my own hysteresis free triac dimmer circuit boards by addition of two back to back diodes to keep the triac always locked on via leakage current, I assume, but indeed I did *not* understand what that diode was for.
The biggest discovery I made tinkering around as a kid was that if you wire a relay to shut itself off you get a buzzer which puts out a delightfully painful high voltage inductive spike train that casual subjects cannot readily let go of if you thread wires around a margarine cup with a mercury switch inside.
As a CNC router fanatic with a bio/chem/nano background, energy projects like these are certainly fun to think about if only the world hasn’t gone mad enough to slander us skeptics loudly enough to pull us into defending science, online, in our spare time, all in a crappy energy rationed economy in which the former Vice President calls for tyranny over reason and the current President scoffs at entrepreneurs since they “didn’t build that.”
I should have been a scammer. It pays very well today.

Bernie McCune
September 29, 2013 7:57 am

How about adding clean water to the micro-power and communication mix? Dean Kamen and evil capitalistic Coke Corp have teamed up to really help small villages do a lot of what we are talking about here. Very clever idea. Tell me what is wrong with it. Power for cell phones and a central TV too. Battery recharge as well (for flashlight lighting). A woman entrepreneur to run it and perhaps begin to pay for it?

September 29, 2013 8:02 am

Thank you for share your experience and ideas about power sharing, power house school is a nice concept

mark fraser
September 29, 2013 8:06 am

NYCNik: I had a physics lab TA who, armed with his Ph.D a few years later, was working for an industrial firm evaluating instrumentation. He could recite in detail everything about electrons and holes and quantum states, but I had to explain to him that semiconductor diodes passed current in only one direction. Lots of credentials, no qualifications.

September 29, 2013 8:27 am

I have always been interested in PV ever since I got my hands on a couple of very small PC cells in the mid 50’s. Sadly PV is somewhat of a disappointment with promises of lower prices and better efficiency still not making PV cost effective. However now that I am retired and spend time in a motorhome I have installed the small Harbor Freight 45 watt PV panels to charge my utility batteries. This fairly cheap small system works well. I can get about 4 hours of laptop use a day and about four hours of light. But another far cheaper trick I use is the cheap solar powered yard lights. I have two $5 spotlight type lights that I simply put in the sun during the day and then place them in holders in the motor home to provide light for reading or cooking etc. They last forever, the oldest one I have is 5 years old but I know of even older ones that still work fine. I also use them to charge my rechargeable batteries that I then take out of these yard lights and use in the radio or flashlight. Fairly cheap electricity for small power usage systems. I have a generator on board but rarely use it.

September 29, 2013 8:39 am

Fuel cells? Using methane from dung/termite mounds etc…. armchair thoughts.

September 29, 2013 8:50 am

Careful about dragging those lead-acid batteries over rocks and gutted dirt rocks and potholed gravel: The heavy, long, closely spaced but carefully separated, very thin lead plates bend, touching plate-to-plate or cracking off when not carefully handled. Another reason to consider the older but sturdier iron-nickle batteries.

September 29, 2013 8:50 am

Let’s turn this in a different direction and consider that electricity is a energy carrier medium and not a source such as wood, coal, natural gas, propane, solar, etc. Electricity is a convenience not a necessity for many if not all machine driven tasks. The idea of bringing electricity to the “poor” is a Western concept based on current modern Western culture under the pipe dream of liberal equality of outcome’s faulty premise. BTW- this is how liberals justify keeping the poor at their current levels of poverty under the rubic of AGW. They have actually argued against Chinese modernization raising millions from abject poverty claiming it is not possible to raise every person’s standard of living to that of the US.
Both small portable TVs and lights (camping) can be charged with a small portable solar panel. This fills your requirement for education and information. Virtually any device requiring an electric motor for a driver can be substituted with an internal combustion engine powered by gasoline, diesel, or CO (made from wood, coal, camel chips or other locally available combustibles).
Batteries themselves are a very poor energy storage device that actually loses charge over a period of time such as a laptop battery. As others have suggested, consider compressed air as a viable energy storage medium. Compressed air actually has a secondary benefit in that IF you paint the compressed air tank black and leave it in the sun, the heat will cause the pressure in the tank to rise thus gaining extra energy to be used with no inefficiency associated with PV conversion. You can’t get that kind of effect from electricity as a carrier medium. Consider a wind mill for say a water pump, have the wind mill direct coupled to an air compressor. The compressed air will be stored in a compression tank and extra capacity can be easily added by piping in more tanks as needed. By decoupling the wind mill as a direct driver you take away some of the disadvantage of the lack of reliability of wind power. Paint the tank black and in effect your have a hybrid solar wind powered water pump turned by an air motor. Actually you could do the same for a small village run battery charging station or mini-grid. Have the air motor drive the generator to power the mini-grid or battery charging station. Or pipe the compressed air to various usage points to run pneumatic equipment or air motors for various applications.
As a side note, many modern electric conveniences are less energy efficient than their natural gas counterparts given their thermal efficiencies.

Crispin in Waterloo but really in Yogyakarta
September 29, 2013 8:53 am

@Grey Lensman
>How about a Crispin Mongolian furnace, using wood, coal or biomass, heating water to lp steam.
>Use the lp steam to drive a micro steam turbine, magnetic bearings, one moving part, to drive integral 1kw generator. Waste steam then heats water and condenses back to water heater. In summer the neat can fire up an evaporative cooler.
I have always like the idea and even tried to get a man who knew a lot about steam to design me a 4″ piston machine. I had an engineering workshop at the time. A great deal of mechanical work can be done by steam pressure at <4 bars (above which certification is required).
The ideal would be something that can make about 50 Watts of 12 VDC. It is not all that much energy and as heating demand is on the order of 4-7 kW it does not have to be efficient. The Brazilian steam-stove was a bit of overkill in terms of cost but it worked and that was the point. In some places there is no shortage of fuel at all.

Alan Robertson
September 29, 2013 9:01 am

I am reminded of a scene from the movie, Out of Africa, when the Baroness had been explaining the need to send all of the tribal children to school and the old chief said, “The British send all of their children to school. What good has it done the British?”

John Weir
September 29, 2013 9:17 am

Willis, thank you for sharing your experiences and practical ideas in assisting the poor. As the evidence for AGW increasingly fails to support assertions by environmental activists, perhaps it is time for the ‘sceptic’ community to begin shifting its focus from challenging the proponents of AGW to formulating a new global energy agenda based on real evidence, sound economics, and balanced human/environmental values.

September 29, 2013 9:47 am

from your prior article dealing with coal for heat, I was wondering how a remote boiler fired by coal using steam to drive alternators (or gens with converters) as well as piping heat to a few homes.
w/o knowing the exact topography its hard to say if its feasible, but if homes are close together (I cannot imagine they are large) one boiler could heat a few as well as charge batteries.
don’t see where you could get to the scale needed to be an actual coal fired gen plant, but the battery charging could be a secondary usage of the heat.

September 29, 2013 9:59 am

Jimbo says:
September 28, 2013 at 5:49 pm
Light in a bottle, no electricity required.
You beat me to it by a country mile, Jimbo.
A very useful asset – h/t to Alfredo Moser.
Cooking – [doesn’t] Oxfam distribute a solar-powered one [so the wood etc. doesn’t get burnt, so more wood, plants – less erosion; and less carbon in the house’s atmosphere – and so a reduced rate of lung/bronchial diseases].
Transport – there’s a charity in the UK that ships container-loads of used bicycles out to [Africa?] some where in the Third World; Re-cycle; there are others I’ve found Wheels4life, Jole Rider, etc., but I’m not sure about sourcing [and paying for] new inner tubes/tyres . . . .
Again, as already indicated above many times, the elephant in the room is the local social structure.
One of the reasons England/Great Britain had the Industrial Revolution was that we had a workable rule-of-law. If you made money you kept most of it.

Grey Lensman
September 29, 2013 10:07 am

Crispin, Thank you. As others have stated for remote rural off grid applications, efficiency is really not necessary. That it is simple, cheap and works is the key. The range of fuels is growing. India is expert at low cost cow dung methane and using it as a kitchen fuel. To produce a cheap integrated unit requires a little bit of design engineering, its not rocket science.
An oddity I see with electricity, it needs to be simple, plug and play so to speak, or it gets left alone and dies. Odd that.

Alan Robertson
September 29, 2013 10:12 am

Auto says:
September 29, 2013 at 9:59 am
One of the reasons England/Great Britain had the Industrial Revolution was that we had a workable rule-of-law.
That’s it.

September 29, 2013 10:30 am

JHC, having read through the comments here I can see just why a fair old percentage of the population (of Earth) are still living on a couple of dollars a day after decades of Western attempts at trying to eradicate poverty.
At one end nobody has asked what, exactly, the locals need. Let’s try lighting. OK boys and girls, let’s all turn off the electricity in our lovely Western home at sunset. No cheating with a torch though! Let’s see what you miss most by daybreak. Light? Heat? The Internet?
Then we get all the way to “carpet bombing them with PDA’s”. Quite apart from PDA’s requiring electricity (which we don’t have) from sockets (that we don’t have), what exactly would they be used for? We don’t have electricity and we sure as hell don’t have ‘Internet access’. I suppose we could pre-load the ‘to do’ list though. ‘Take care of four children until my husband gets back from SA and do it all during daylight hours’. Then again we knew that without the PDA chirping away at sunrise.
I think that we are back where Willis started all this. Cash and Coal (if we are lucky) from our four month stint working in a SA mine are what we have.
Oh yes and stupid Westerners arriving periodically with some new hair brained scheme.

Tatonka Chesli
September 29, 2013 10:41 am

Its a compelling idea. Following up your travels in the UK, one thing that is striking about past centuries in Britain is that work for pay often began quite young. Of course images of 10-year olds down coal mines is a very negative one. However in the light of problems of delinquency one sometimes feels that starting work early can be good for many. I am reminded of the film “Master and Commander” with Russel Crowe on which quite young boys served in the UK navy.
However the point raised by several about the rule of law is a valid one. If these units were indeed profitable, how long would they stay in the hands of teachers and school children?

September 29, 2013 10:52 am

Instead of solar what about coconuts? Coconut diesel could be used to power a generator to charge the car batteries. No deforestation necessary, locally available, free and renewable. To get it going the generator could be sold dirt cheap to a local who presents the best plan to run the operation for his own profit.
In Bougainville, Papua New Guinea, cars are run off coconut diesel. Necessity is the mother of adaptation. This was apparently in reaction to the trade blockade. The fule was also used in the Philippines in WW2 to power generators.

September 29, 2013 11:06 am

dmacleo says:
September 29, 2013 at 9:47 am

from your prior article dealing with coal for heat, I was wondering how a remote boiler fired by coal using steam to drive alternators (or gens with converters) as well as piping heat to a few homes.
w/o knowing the exact topography its hard to say if its feasible, but if homes are close together (I cannot imagine they are large) one boiler could heat a few as well as charge batteries.

A coal-fired furnace & boiler (for running a turbine generator or a older, even-less-efficient, even more troublesome-to-keep-running, steam-piston engine generator is a complex, dangerous machine tool. (Think steam locomotive and tender sitting between a group of houses with children running around, steam pipes running around, and the generator cables and wires.)
Yes, the nuclear plants in the communist Europe DID get put right around the apartment buildings to heat the apartment buildings and factories. Doesn’t mean it was right.
Low temperature heating water (as in the old, inefficient coal-fired “boilers” of the US and Europe northeast) do not heat the water enough to make efficient steam generators. Using a village central boiler requires twice the length of clean, leak-proof water and steam pipes (easily stolen!) going house-to-house to get the hot water out, cold water back to the boiler or heat exchanger. More than quadruples the cost since you have to install all that extra piping. Also, the clean pure water needed inside the generator or steam engine has to be treated carefully (can’t use river or raw water!) and the extra runs add to the make up water and losses. Not to mention “wash water and drinking water” taken from the heating water lines! For example, people are regularly electrocuted tapping into high voltage electrical lines to steal un-metered electricity even in US cities and European cities where they should know better.
Thermal efficiency drops with all those thousands of feet of un-insulated extra pipe runs. Sorry, it is just not practical.
high Maintenance, high operating expenses (fuel, water, short running times before reloading), and continual repairs and the short operating times for steam engines on trains are the primary reason that diesel locomotives replaced them. Continual improvements in efficiency and costs are what keep pushing real-world coal-fired and nuclear plants to ever-larger sizes. Small size and small generators are simply more expensive than big ones.
But – if all you can get a very small generator rather than none at all? Better a small one.

September 29, 2013 11:55 am

I’m in complete agreement with Willis about “expensive energy kills poor people”.
Pielke the Younger had a series of articles on the subject in the fall of 2012 for instance here: Against Modern Energy Access.
Pielke the Younger wrote:

Access to energy is one of the big global issues that has hovered around the fringes of international policy discussions such as the Millennium Development Goals or climate policy, but which has been getting more attention in recent years. In my frequent lectures on climate policy I point out to people that 1.3 billion people worldwide lack any access to electricity and an 2.6 billion more cook with wood, charcoal, tree leaves, crop residues and animal waste (an additional 400 million cook with coal).
The “success” scenarios of climate advocates hoping to power the world with carbon-free energy almost always leave a billion or more people in the dark and several billion cooking with dirty fuels. Sometimes, magic is invoked to suggest that “electricity can be brought to everyone” without appreciably increasing carbon emissions. Of course, if we could bring electricity to the 1.3 billion without any access with no effect on emissions, then we could probably do it for 6 billion others.

Willis’s example of the diesel powered, donkey transported electrical grid goes a great way to illustrate exactly how important rural electrification is to rural people. That these people are willing to invent, and put up with about the most ridiculously absurd and inefficient method electrical transmission possible – automobile battery by donkey – shows how important it is to them. Ironically, that method seems to work better in practice, and is less ridiculous and absurd than the method being proposed by the 1st world Peace Corp workers back in the ’80s.
What ever the solution is it must work, it must be affordable, it shouldn’t break easily, it must be repairable, the parts available, and it must not make anything else worse.
I really like the bit: “If it doesn’t pay, it doesn’t stay.” This is the ultimate economic reality in much of the world were there is no surplus to spare for someone else’s bright ideas.
Some first thoughts:
I have to ask, what will really change with the Powerhouse School Concept? I like it on the one hand, I think it has potential to fill a niche need, and I don’t like it on the other hand because I don’t think it will really solve the problem of lack of rural development and may have some unexpected social repercussions.
How much new wealth or economic activity will Willis’s scheme generate? Willis is a pretty astute analyst when it comes to the numbers, but I wonder if he has missed some possible negative outcomes: like what happens to the guy with the donkey cart? and what happens to the guy who was running the charging business out of the back door of the sawmill powerhouse, and what about the sawmill truck drivers in between? These people represent economic activity and personal income that are at risk of being co-opted by the Willis’s scheme.
I have to ask because I’ve spent enough time myself out on the Reservation with tribal peoples to understand how these businesses often really run. I don’t know, but I suspect in Willis’ Paraguayan example that the real cost to the sawmill of diesel fuel, operator, and capital expenses were not being fully captured in the price of recharging the batteries – that is if all of the electricity wasn’t being out and out stolen from the mill’s owner and the costs to the enterprise had more to do with bribes and payola than no.2 diesel and motor oil.
One factor that differs between Willis’ program and the Paraguayan model is that the latter had almost no capital costs of its own. The generator and all of its capital and overhead expenses is paid for the mill, the donkey cart already paid for, there is a [small] available supply of used car batteries around that are inexpensive enough for the farmers to obtain – probably because they are too decrepit to start a car.
The more successful the Powerhouse School Concept becomes the more it will push the economics of return-on-investment into the area of having to deal with users having to pay for new auto batteries more often, or more expensive deep-cycle batteries up front.
I like that Willis’s proposal is containerized and probably modular. There seem to be a possibility of significant economies of scale, as well as making the scheme turn-key and franchisable. Keep the consultants out of it, but leave the design to professionals. Big plus.
Question is, will it “pay” in reality? and who will finance the initial capitalization of operation? I’m sure Willis has costed all of this out, but as a business proposition his scheme has has to bear much more financial responsibilities for its own upkeep than the original Paraguayan model. As Willis mentioned, people in these circumstances have irregular incomes. Businesses have difficulties with irregular incomes when they have fixed capital expenses. If the scheme is not able to help create real economic development in the adult population of the communities it serves then it will always be at grave risk of not being able to “pay” – and it won’t “stay”.
I like the educational and technical training aspect of the program but I don’t like the child labor aspect of the program. Does the income from the scheme pay the child workers? The school? The schoolmaster? How do the impoverished parents pay their own kids for the household electricity? If the Powerhouse School doesn’t help alleviate the problem of adult non-employment then all you will wind up doing is exacerbating the problem of the flight of human talent, young people, and resources to the city, leaving everyone else much as before. The kids are going to move to a grid connection once they figure out electricity and that real work can be gotten out of it.
The Powerhouse School concept may be some kind of a stop-gap, but at some point you have to raise the threshold of electricity use for these people to the realm of ‘modern’. This is something I hope most people can agree on because – expensive energy kills poor people.
I like the idea that the project will be supervised by someone with some education and social independence [especially social independence] in the village, the teacher, but I also don’t like the idea of concentrating economic activity at the school, government run or otherwise.
Unfortunately, in my last analysis, if ideas such as the Powerhouse School are not protected by an “open-access order”† society, then it will likely remain marginal and incapable of producing the real kinds of change and development that the undeveloped nations desperately need.
That’s my opinion,
† The Natural State: The Political Economy of Non-Development, Douglass C. North, John Joseph Wallis and Barry R. Weingast; UCLA Center for Comparative and Global Research, 2005 –

September 29, 2013 11:59 am

Building on Speeds comment:
Speed says:
September 28, 2013 at 3:02 pm
Willis wrote, “And in the cart were a half-dozen auto batteries. I asked the driver what that was about, and I was surprised by the reply.”
I was sure that the next sentence would be something like, “The cart had a generator driven by a system of belts and pulleys connected to the axle thereby charging the batteries as he travelled along.”
And from your article “there are several designs for hydroelectric systems using heavy-duty truck alternators”
Since one form of power that is generally abundant in primitive rural areas is draft animals, have you considered adapting the hydro power idea to us draft animals instead of hydro.
There are a number of designs going all the way back to medieval times for using either large wooden wheels or treadmill like devices to convert animal or even human power to usable mechanical power. Such systems should be locally buildable in the areas of concern and could be located right with the battery charging station to eliminate long distance transmission issues.

September 29, 2013 12:32 pm

Any plan that includes child involvement in a non-parasitic role is going to bring out the leftist nutter city core cranks who never grew up on a farm and who don’t know that children who work in the home/farm are not victims of greedy overlords but are contributing members of the family/village unit and tend to be productive their entire lives.
Oh jeeze – I just read a recent post and it’s already happening.
Anyway – this problem of last mile electrification can be solved with RTG encased in concrete bunkers to keep vandals out. The run 24/7/365 and are too cheap to meter.

September 29, 2013 12:36 pm

LevelGaze says:
September 28, 2013 at 2:50 pm
Ah, Willis, this post brings back distant memories of growing up in a two roomed Victorian slum in a small town in Scotland immediately post WW2. There, I’ve given away my age.
Ours was one of the majority of houses which was not, and never had been, connected to the local grid. We had one running cold water tap, lighting was by coal gas or kerosene, heating was the single coal fire, and there was an outdoor toilet shared with six other families.

People under 30 living in the UK today don’t know what it was like. I remember it wasn’t uncommon back in the early 1970s to hear some people had outside toilets. In 1971 just over 10% of people had outside toilets. People just don’t appreciate the great strides that have been made and the benefits of fossil fuels. They’ve never had it so good. It is this I suspect that injects them with guilt and they wish to ‘undevelop’ the UK.
Other lifestyle changes since 1971.

September 29, 2013 12:44 pm

Agree with you on this. The thousands of wind generators in Africa that are not working are a testament to “helicopter assistance”. When you started doing this solar panels were very expensive, today they are super cheap commodities. Car batteries are everywhere can can be recharged by solar panels in the manner that you state. One of the ways to make this work is to provide the solar panels and chargers to the village elders for the distributed method and just the solar panels with the right output voltage for the individuals users. They will figure out how to obtain batteries and chargers.
Just a little solar goes a long way in that part of the world.

September 29, 2013 12:46 pm

“Since one form of power that is generally abundant in primitive rural areas is draft animals…”
Draft animals, their fodder and their operators are fairly valuable resources in the societies that rely on them for work. They are generally used only for the most important tasks. Take one away from farming, hauling goods, turning an olive press or whatever – generating wealth – and there may not be one left to do those important things. The developed world moved away from animal power for a reason, not the least of which it was more humane for the animals.
Where I live we have a bunch of nutty-crunchy “Pedal People” trying to make a green go of collecting your trash and recyclables for you by bicycle and hauling it to the dump for you. Vast supply of nutty-crunchy people in my area to strap into pedals, but I shake my head at the waste of human potential – college educated people turning themselves into draft animals voluntarily. Hitler did this involuntarily and we called it a crime against humanity, now we seen to think its a wonderful idea, turning high quality organic produce into motor fuel – ridiculous. None of these people seem to realize this is exactly what they have done.
We need solutions that can take 3.9 billion people out of “fuel subsistence”. Bumped up against numbers like these, the latest generation of ultra-supercritical coal fired boiler technology, as a generational bridge to the next better thing, starts to look humane if natural gas or Thorium is unavailable.

Luthe Bl't
September 29, 2013 12:46 pm

Thorium burning pebble bed reactors small enough to sit in the back of a pickup. The PRC also has this problem, and they’ve been working on a solution.

September 29, 2013 1:00 pm

RACookPE1978 says:
September 29, 2013 at 11:06 am
I was thinking more of the heating issue (and I see I phrased it ALL wrong,sorry) as w/o that electricity does not matter.
lot of home wood fired boilers up here, some coal too, heating multiple buildings on peoples land. not very labor intensive and they don’t operate at steam levels.
radiant heat in floors would help, again no idea of the ground conditions there so may not even support piping.
thought maybe would be a manner to reclaim and somehow reheat (like locomotive superheaters through stacks) to drive rotation to charge batteries.
w/o a heated home a light to read by means nothing.

September 29, 2013 1:07 pm

From that yes, but are we (you and I) assuming too much about their actual needs for home heating? Example: What latitude and at what altitude will the house be at? Does it have doors and windows at all? Would mosquito nettings be more important more of the year than doors, windows, or floor radiant heating?
The advantage of “the economy” driving purchases rather than you, I, or the IPCC or the new york based and thoroughly corrupt UN or their even-more corrupt local country or regional government is that the local user knows what he or she wants for their own house.
Unfortunately also, what the local “wants” is also too often tonight’s “drink and sex and AK-47 reload”, rather than next winter’s heat and next year’s night lights next year’s clean water.

September 29, 2013 1:33 pm

Willis’ s idea is obviously well thought out, but it seems to me he’s been looking at the problem from the wrong direction.
Various readers have stories of how, in their youth, their families used expensive batteries to listen to an hour or two of radio each day. Clearly, no one anywhere is doing that now. Modern radios require far less power, and hand-cranked models are available.
Willis records that the most important uses for electricity were said to be lighting and television. As others have noted, hand-cranked lights are now commonplace and, thanks to the greater efficiency of LED’s, quite effective. Mention has also been made of the hand-cranked laptop – if a laptop can be powered in this way, why not a television? There is increasingly little difference between the devices in any case.
My point is not necessarily to use hand-cranks on everything, but rather that if electricity is only used for lighting and commications, (mobile phones included), then rather than physical work, then the amount of power needed is quite small, and getting steadily the smaller as technology improves.
So rather than inventing ways to get more power to remote places, it makes more sense to make more devices that don’t need external power.

Charles Tossy
September 29, 2013 1:36 pm

I have been looking for small scale energy production that makes sense for a long time. Untill last week nothing knocked my socks off. Last week I found this: It involves putting carbon in water and zapping the mixture with a lasar. Hydrogen is released. With some quick calculations, assuming 100 % efficiency, less than 10% of the hydrogen is needed to produce the hydrogen output using fuel cells. Note: I have not cheked the numbers for errors yet. And carbon can be made from agricultural waste, algae, used bicycle tires …

September 29, 2013 1:58 pm

What about Bill Gates?? Have you tried his charity organization(s)?? THorium: small, regional, portable power stations. With start up power provided by your batteries. Plug and play charging trucks, roving around, etc. BTW— You might like ‘Long Way Down’ on NEtflix a travel blog through Africa from top to bottom on motorbikes– Ewan McGregor of Ob1-kenobe fame.

John Ledger
September 29, 2013 1:59 pm

Dear Willis
It was great to read your very interesting contribution about energy issues in Lesotho. I have worked there on the Lesotho Highlands Water Project from 1988 until 2012 when they ‘retired’ me as a member of the ‘Environmental Panel’ originally set up by the World Bank and then sustained by the Lesotho Highlands Development Authority (LHDA) thereafter until last year.
Economic conditions in Lesotho have improved vastly since I first went there in 1988. The political situation since South Africa became a democracy in 1994 has completely changed the face of Southern Africa. Landlocked Lesotho does find it politially expedient to remain an independent state, although some activists in Lesotho have suggested that it should become a province of South Africa. There seems to be no impediment these days to Basotho citizens finding good employment in South Africa and the old borders of the apartheid years have virtualy disappeared. The border formalities that one encounters these days when travelling into Lesotho and requiring a passport will hopefully be scrapped as useless impediments to democratic freedom of movment in our region.
This once impoverished little British Protectorate actually has lots going for it these days. The water project has secured millions of dollars in royalities every year for what they call the “White Gold” in Lesotho. The Lesotho Highlands Water Project has also paid out many millions of dollars in compensation for communties affected by the Project. This money comes from water consumers in the area served by Rand Water, a huge undertaking that supples clean potable water from taps across a vast area of South Africa and supplies millions of consumers.
Interestingly, and from what I have seen over the years, none of this compensation money has been used to invest in electricity supply! There are plenty of business plans for using the money for other enterprises, like maize grinding mills, schools, taxis and road-building.
Apart from its ‘White Gold” water, that will ensure a perpetually sustainable income from South Africa, Lesotho has recently been pulling big gemstone diamonds out of several mines that are worth millions of dollars on the international diamond market. Big money for Lesotho!
The ‘Muela hydropower plant at the end of the delivery tunnel of the water project has three turbines that can generate around 72 MW, depending on the level of the Katse Dam. This just about used to meet the whole of Lesotho’s summertime demand a couple of years ago. Phase II of the LHWP may double that, and there are also plans for a pumped storage project and some wind farms that may be useful if they are linked to pumped storage. But environmentalists are very uptight about the impact of wind farms on big birds in Lesotho, and as a vulture lover I do share that concern too!
The LEC (Lesotho government electrcity utilty) has been very active in stringing 11 kV overhead lines into rural areas in Lesotho. There is no problem delivering electrcity into rural or urban areas of Lesotho, and the country is linked to the South African grid with a current capacity of around 44 GW. The problem, that many of you have easily identified, is the cost of buying that electricity! It is simply not affordable for resistive loads. So Africans simply have to use biomass or fossil fuel for cooking and space heating. No debate! There are lots of improved biomass stoves on the market – they use less fuel to make more heat and emit less dangerous emissions.
In the remote Lesotho Highlands biomass is used for cooking and heating – this may be woody shrubs that one sees being carried on the backs of donkeys, but all the watercourses in Lesotho support huge quantities of biomass in the form of wood – either from the indigenous Cape Willow that grows prolifically, or from the introduced wilow, Salix babylonica.
For lighting and data (TV, lights and computer) we have PV modules and batteries that do work reliably most of the time. The PV and LED lighting scenarios are getting better every year, and there are plenty of good suppliers of good equipment in this part of the world . Let’s also please not encourage poor rural people to think that they can use failed car batteries to power home PV systems – they can’t!
Willis, you give us so many hours of great intellect and pleasure at WUWT! Please come to visit South Africa some time so that we may extend our thanks and hospitality and make sure you have a good time here on the southern tip of this great continent !

kadaka (KD Knoebel)
September 29, 2013 4:07 pm

UV lights, steam turbines, PDA’s, and lasers. Oh my.
You people are so far from getting it, I want to scream. But that would scare the cats. So I would settle for grabbing you lot by scruff of your necks, dragging you off to one of these rural communities, forcibly dropping you into the dirt, and leaving you there for a year. See what you can make work then.
I don’t even have to leave the US, there are assorted pockets of destitution everywhere. I’ll give you a break, third world working wage of a dollar a day, that’ll free up ten hours a day for experimentation. You find any potential parts laying around from discarded junk and refuse piles, take ’em, and I won’t let you worry about the great disparity between how much they would scavenge and reuse compared to us that makes our trash a rich resource.
How would you do?
For contemplating projects as Willis is doing, I propose the 1973 F100 Standard. That was my first truck, a Ford. Straight six 240, carburetor, breaker point ignition, manual brakes, manual steering, manual transmission, rear wheel drive. Simple and reliable. Take one, drive it to a rural community.
That’s it. That’s your source material. Whatever you want, build it from the truck. Start with something simple and easy to maintain, what you make is more likely to be easy to maintain. You want more modern tech? It has to be swappable and at least as reliable, the cost justifiable. Swap LED’s for incandescent bulbs and enjoy the efficiency, if you can guarantee they’ll last 20 years as that’s how long it’ll be for affordable replacements to be available in the village. If they fail, the users can still stick an incandescent in the socket.
Now get it done. Let me know when you’ve finished what is the forging hammer when not driving the metal lathe and is also the arc welder while co-generating hot water for the metal shop, that runs at night and keeps the metal shop lit. Have fun.

September 29, 2013 6:36 pm

Of course the kinds of systems I am talking about don’t have to be used with traditional draft animals. They can be, and pretty much have been, scaled for any size or type of domestic animal from the dog on up to elephants.
I also take issue with the point that it wouldn’t be valuable work. Such systems have been used to power wells and mills and were an important part of the very early stages of the industrial revolution.
As Wills says, you can’t just drop modern power systems on remote primitive villages and expect to be successful. You have to start with systems they can maintain themselves.

September 29, 2013 8:33 pm

You all are missing the point. I read to my son 3-4 nights/week by solar-charged light. It is not a big deal.
The ONE perk of western development we are H3ll bent on delivering, if anything, is this: birth control.
We frame it as bringing “reproductive rights.”
Since most of us educated scientific people believe in free unfettered access to birth control pills and abortion, this does not blip on our radar.
The powers that be do not want more dark-skinned people.
That is the story.
That is why it is so easy to note what “could” work so well, if only someone were willing and smart enough to fund it.
We have thrown millions and millions into foreign aid.
The powers that be don’t wan’t self-sufficient [trimmed].
The powers that be keep YOU in check by keeping YOU as rabid defenders of free birth control and abortion.
Now, back to your regularly scheduled discussion of how simple it is to bring development to the dark world, while ignoring the fact that decades of “effort” have passed and little has been achieved.

September 29, 2013 8:45 pm

You should try setting up a demonstration project. I don’t think you would even need to leave the US. There are probably bush villages in Alaska that could benefit from this. See if Anthony will let you see if you can raise the funding to set up the demonstration through WUWT.

September 29, 2013 9:16 pm

Reblogged this on gottadobetterthanthis and commented:
Willis idea is workable. That is the main thing. It can work and help people. It needs some devoted, honestly interested people too. Not foundation funds.

September 29, 2013 10:25 pm

We frame it as bringing “reproductive rights.”

I call it erection management. Get your hands around that problem as a responsible individual and it stops being a social problem. You own it – you manage it. I’ll remain amazed till I die that reproduction rights, a pseudonym for kill a fetus on sight, is a constitutional right but birth is not even when the impregnation is recreational. Life is a bitch when you’re too young to vote. I’ll repeat here that I am an atheist, not a right winger bible thumping snake shaker.

Smoking Frog
September 29, 2013 10:56 pm

Claude Harvey says:
September 28, 2013 at 4:50 pm
I spent my early childhood on a South Georgia farm with no electricity. … powered by batteries, so listening time was strictly rationed to fifteen minutes of world news and thirty minutes of entertainment shows each night after dinner (or “supper” as it was called in rural areas).
Many people in New England, including my family, called it “supper” in the old days. Maybe many still do. As a kid, I never thought there was anything particularly rural about it, but I did think it was inferior.

September 29, 2013 11:05 pm

An old acquaintance of mine started up a company in Nepal decades ago, I think around 1980. He sold a small PV panel, lead-acid battery, and a tangle of electronics plus a little fluorescent light to families back in the hills of Nepal. Just looked him up. Apparently the company is going strong, having sold 15,000 sets to families who use it to read at night. TV or a grid hookup is impossible in the Himalaya. Today they use LED and the systems are very much more efficient, but still use lead acid batteries. It is the Solar Electric Company, in Kathmandu.

September 29, 2013 11:55 pm

Willis, you wrote – quote: “The problem as always is money. I need to figure out a way to make money out of my travels. I became a commercial fisherman to support my ocean addiction, so now I need something to support my travel addiction … – w.”
Well why not become a travelling writer and start travelling/writing for a living? I am still waiting for my edition of “THE WORLD – according to Willis Eschenbach”-book… 😉

Grey Lensman
September 29, 2013 11:57 pm

Some emerging simple rules.
If it works, it works, matters not what the experts say.
Bugger the economics if the selected fuel is cheaper/available on site, use it.
How much does it cost to mass produce a 1kw, single moving part, commutator, slip-ring, brushless generator using mainly plastics?
How much does it cost to produce a similar, compatible CD motor turbine(Tesla disc turbine) running on steam or compressed air to drive such a generator?
Trouble with NGOs and Green corporations, they like the marketing images but will not do the real work, getting it to the people.
And yes using scrap f150 pickups and kitting them out as mobile power stations is a great idea.

September 30, 2013 12:43 am

This has been one of the best threads on WUWT ever. It includes real authorities sharing their knowledge together with other people displaying their inability to grasp the nature of day-to-day realities for the truly poor.
I don’t live in such poverty so I cannot really understand it. But I write to share a little family history because it seems to fit with your point that ‘what works and is available is what counts for the desperate’.
In WW2 Exeter was packed with people from the bombed cities of Bristol and Plymouth when Exeter was also bombed. My mother and her family were among the Exonians who lost everything. They took up residence in a large chicken house on the edge of Dartmoor (it was empty of chickens). Her father equipped that ‘residence’ with electricity and electric light.
They obtained their water from a stream flowing off the moor and adjacent to the chicken house. My grandfather used the radiator fan from an old vehicle as a water turbine immersed in the stream, and the alternator from the vehicle as a generator. Light bulbs from the vehicle provided the lighting but I do not know where he obtained the wires. This system did not need to last for years but was better than nothing for life in the chicken house, or so I am told.

September 30, 2013 1:24 am

Here’s a potential Deus ex Machina that would be even more remarkable than Rossi’s e-cat “cold fusion” gadget: the Papp engine. It uses, supposedly, some sort of unknown nuclear reaction triggered by a spark in a sealed cylinder containing a mix of noble gases in a modified gasoline or diesel engine to provide 6000 hours of free 150 horsepower. The designer, Bob Rohner, a former assistant to Joseph Papp, wants beaucoup bux before revealing the secret. He & his deceased brother got it perfected and running six months ago. (An earlier version was supposedly debunked.)
Here’s the link to the home page of his site — click on the tabs at the top for more. It’s worth it just for entertainment value, which I fear may be all it amounts to. Still, you never know . . . .

Grey Lensman
September 30, 2013 2:44 am

Richard has a good point in the story from Exeter. Given mans ingenuity along with knowledge and skills set, a lot can be done with very little.
However, the poor and downtrodden the world over have little knowledge.
We need to give them that and some simple tools. They can do the rest, even perhaps build their own local grid and set up their own energy czar.
Dont give them ipads and tablets? Why not, that is a very controlling attitude. With a simple ipad they gain access to the world, knowledge and even education. Homeschooling becomes real and they develop their own culture but aware of the world and its wonders.
See what happened when simple farmers of spices got real market information. Their real income went from usd 500 to 5,000 plus per year. The middleman got his just deserts.
We, with the supposed brains and intellect, should be able to ensure that they have the basic tools to do the job, they need. Fail by the N.G.O. set of dingbats
Look at simple cow manure digesters, to produce methane. Very expensive but they build their own from mud bricks in India for a fraction of the cost and they have a real clean cooking gas, now.

J Broadbent
September 30, 2013 4:37 am
Dear Willis
I write using solar power stored in lead acid batteries. Try the quiz above 93% of PEW Foundation followers failed to get them all correct. Mind you question 12 is a trap for skeptics or any one with half a brain. I feel most scientists would feel water vapour may be the more logical choice as an answer to this question.
A thought
Why not peddle powered charging of batteries in these communities? Solar is expensive, difficult to maintain and useless when you have rain or cloudy days
Cheers John

September 30, 2013 4:52 am

The answer is more efficient thermal power conversion technology (like Then any heat source could produce DC power, in a fully scalable manner.

September 30, 2013 9:19 am

Matt S.
I agree with your point. In my first comment I wrote:

“What ever the solution is it must work, it must be affordable, it shouldn’t break easily, it must be repairable, the parts available, and it must not make anything else worse.”

It’s my analysis that the use of draft animals, as useful as that work has always been to rural populations, can’t raise these people up out of “energy subsistence” – if that is your goal. It can make their subsistence easier, but cannot fundamentally change the situation for the 3.9 Billion people that Pielke the Younger discussed on his blog last year.

James at 48
September 30, 2013 9:27 am

In the newly industrializing worlds, it’s all about King Coal. That is the way the world works.

Matthew R Marler
September 30, 2013 9:35 am

This was an interesting thread.
Where there is enough social disorder, nothing will work. If in Lesotho there are truckers safely and economically bringing in coal, and citizens safely bringing the stuff home and using it, then it’s likely that at least something truly local will work: pedal-powered auto alternators in the home; roof-mounted solar, and so on. If the people of Lesotho can maintain the trucks, then they can maintain the electrical generating units.

September 30, 2013 9:51 am

Then when the thugs come along, there is something valuable for them to loot.

September 30, 2013 10:04 am

“So please … let’s move away from pedal-powered alternators, they are a very bad idea. The point is to get humans OFF the treadmills, not put the poor buggers ON the treadmills …”
What about putting animals on the treadmills?

September 30, 2013 10:05 am

I haven’t read all the comments so I apologize if someone already mentioned this.
Lighting and television are two technologies that have seen a major increase in power efficiency over the last few years. With LED lights and LCD TV’s (backlit by LED’s) that car battery should last much longer these days than it would 5 years ago.
On another note: I attended a PINC (People, Ideas, Nature, Creativity) conference in the Netherlands back in 2006. One of the presenters worked at a software development company in India. The company was situated in a walled compound surrounded by a poverty stricken community. He had the idea of putting a window in the security wall with an internet connected computer behind it. The mouse and keyboard for the computer were located on a shelf outside the window.
With no guidance or intervention from the company, young kids outside the wall, who had never seen a computer before, taught themselves to use the computer and became quite expert within a few months. They developed their own culture regarding fair usage times, knowledge transfer, etc.

September 30, 2013 10:06 am

At September 30, 2013 at 9:51 am you say

Then when the thugs come along, there is something valuable for them to loot.

Yes, and that is why Rule of Law is so important.
Please remember that Lesotho is a British Protectorate. We would not want – and could not afford – to get involved in another war, but if the problem is only some local thugs whom the Lesotho government wanted ‘removed’ then nobody would know if the SAS or SBS ‘helped’. Those bad boys would consider such ‘help’ both a simple matter and a cheap, useful training exercise.

September 30, 2013 10:13 am

“It’s my analysis that the use of draft animals, as useful as that work has always been to rural populations, can’t raise these people up out of “energy subsistence” – if that is your goal.”
Why not, that is ultimately the start of how western civilization got up out of “energy subsistence”?
In fact Willis’ whole argument is that you can’t just drop modern energy tech on the communities in question and expect it to make a lasting difference. The whole effort will fall apart with the first component that fails.
The rest of the world didn’t get out from under subsistence living over night, it took centuries to happen. To expect to raise these remote communities out of subsistence living without taking an incremental approach over several generations is magical thinking.

September 30, 2013 11:10 am

Thanks for taking the time to “fisk” my comment – its an honor.
I think in general we probably agree on many issues. You seem to be focusing on the technical/engineering side of the problem; I’m focusing on the system side of the problem. From my view of the problem it really matters if a society is a “closed-access” or “open-access”† order. Whether or not a society possesses this key cultural factor is the biggest stumbling block to them being able to develop to the point that they can afford their own solutions without massive foreign aid and perpetual intervention. Education by itself is not sufficient. Technology by itself is not sufficient. There must be open access to productive activity.

If you said that to someone in the third world, their jaws would drop to the floor. Students are not coddled in the developing world. Frequently they are expected to work, and work hard, for the schools.

Yes, I might well have been laughed right out of the room. The lack of productivity of the adult population is so thoroughly accepted as the basis of economic reality that anyone who presumes otherwise is laughed off as crazy – or from another world. Believe me I get it.
You wrote about Lesotho in your previous article:

These days, curiously, most of the time the country is populated by old folks, and women and kids—the only real employment for hundreds of miles around are the mines of South Africa … including the coal mines. So the men are all at work in South Africa, and the country runs on the money that the miners send home.

This is not curious at all, the is completely indicative of the failure of a closed-order society to be able to develop itself.
I see a problem very similar to the way described by Pielke the Younger‡ last year: 3.9 Billion people globally needing to be raised up to modern levels of energy access and a developed world, feeling threatened by the prospects, wants to put a brake on electrical access of the developing world that is somewhere around the level of bare “energy subsistence.” I see a need for solutions that ultimately raise this entire population up to modern standards in such a way that they can afford it largely on their own – and without breaking any rules:

“What ever the solution is it must work, it must be affordable, it shouldn’t break easily, it must be repairable, the parts available, and it must not make anything else worse.”

Yes, the fist steps will be smaller scale, local, and will be in-fills along the fringes, but at the same time we also have to be able to power entire societies – billions of people.
Just to clear up a few points. I am as much concerned about the general lack of productivity of the adults in the undeveloped world as the education of the children. We’ve both been there and seen how hard everyone works, this isn’t about coddling the kiddies. We both probably know exactly how bad the real child labor situation is throughout the world. That problem is deeply entwined with lack of employment and productivity in the adult population.
That’s my opinion,
†The Natural State: The Political Economy of Non-Development, Douglass C. North, John Joseph Wallis and Barry R. Weingast; UCLA Center for Comparative and Global Research, 2005 –

dave ward
September 30, 2013 11:13 am

Could I add to the automotive alternator suggestions:
1) Claw pole alternators of this type are very inefficient – I have two 3hp Briggs & Stratton engines, one drives a 1kw 230v AC permanent magnet alternator quite happily. The other a home brew 12V charging set using a 35A Lucas (UK) car alternator. This will just about manage to provide the full output, which only equates to some 500 watts, and gets VERY hot under full load.
2) The normal arrangement is to have 6 high power diodes (3 negative & 3 positive) which provide the DC output. There will be a further 3 smaller positive diodes which provide the excitation current for the rotor (field circuit). Some older units don’t have these, and rely on a positive supply from the vehicle wiring, via the ignition switch. In either case the voltage regulation is done by switching the rotor circuit on and off rapidly, varying the “On” time in proportion to the load. Those familiar with some older diesel tractors and motor boats may have noticed alternator triggered tachometers “hunting” when the battery is fully charged, and no lights etc are running. This shows the field circuit switching off completely for a second or two until the voltage drops again.
3) Willis’s idea of using step up / step down transformers has some merit, BUT as pointed out here, the frequency will be well above normal mains, so readily available equipment won’t be any use. The alternator speed would need to be kept constant and suitably designed transformers made to suit. Furthermore there would also need to be 2 wires running back from the remote diode pack / load / battery to the alternator to provide a feedback of the resulting DC output, in order to tell the regulator what to do. Since all 9 diodes are normally in this pack you would STILL have to arrange the DC supply for the field circuit back at the alternator itself. You could, alternatively, run these two wires direct to the rotor brushes, having relocated the entire diode pack & regulator, but there would now be voltage drop problems to contend with. Most of the car alternators I’ve tinkered with draw 3-5 amps for the field circuit, and reducing this will drop the overall output, precisely the situation you’re trying to avoid.
4) In any situation where you’re trying to quickly re-charge heavily discharged batteries the standard fixed voltage regulator is far from ideal. Even a small voltage drop between the alternator and the battery reduces the charge current, as virtually all modern units employ machine sensing. This is why multi-stage external regulators are normally used in marine applications, to a) provide a more controlled charge, and b) to compensate for any volt drop in the cables when batteries are some distance from the engine.
5) One more problem with using small engines to make a cheap charging set (like the one I mentioned) – If you connect the battery up and then start the engine it will likely struggle to accelerate from idle, because as soon as the alternator reaches cut in speed it will present a huge load. My simple way round this was to rig up a side light bulb in the field circuit for initial start up, once the engine was warmed and brought up to full speed a switch bypassed the bulb giving full output. I later improved this with a custom made variable regulator, so the voltage, and hence the load could be varied from about 10 volts up to 15. I also rigged that up with battery sensing to compensate for the leads and crocodile clips used to connect the battery.

dave ward
September 30, 2013 11:18 am

Oh, one more thing – some alternators have a single large diode connected across the rotor brushes (or ground to positive) – this will be a Zener diode, which provides some protection if the regulator were to fail short circuit and allow a lightly loaded machine to go way above the designed voltage.

September 30, 2013 11:51 am

IME – do-gooders do more harm than good for most people. I do think your heart is in the right place, but why not just leave those people alone to find their own solutions; they might surprise you! [E = Estimation]

September 30, 2013 1:04 pm

Matt S.
I certainly don’t intend to be arguing for magical solutions or the dispensing of technology form helicopters into the rainforest, nor am I opposed to incramental solutions. I am arguing for intelligent solutions and more complete solutions.
My main complaint with Willis’s proposal is that it misses the dominant factor in the problem, lack of productivity of the adult population which is deeply entangled with the problem of access to energy, access to education and access to productive activity. That why I would like to emphisize that Willis’s idea would be a better idea if it could improve the productive capacity of the adults in these societies as well as the educational opportunities of the children – even if incramentally.
Centuries ago it took centuries to develop. Today it can occur in one to two generations, the only question is how cleanly and humanely it can be done. Brazil and China are two imperfect examples. The biggest inhibitors are cultural. The biggest problem is access to energy. Western civilization started to really develop after around 1700 when it started to learn to transform into an open order society. Previosly the model included some trade, but also included plundering their neighbors or some overseas colony only to have that wealth wash right through their economy and back out again [example colonial Spain].
Things will actually be a little easier for some of the late coming nations because they will be able to leap-frog some of the infrastructure and technology issues that the current developed world had to go through.
You are correct when you say, “The whole effort will fall apart with the first component that fails,” if the whole economy is so fragile that nobody can afford the replacement part or the technician to replace it. Real economic development has to be part of the program.
The magical thinking in my mind come from people who seriously propose high efficiency twig-burning thermoelectric cookers that will also charge an iPhone as some kind of solution to the problem of third world energy access. I think Willis might agree.

September 30, 2013 1:48 pm

This is very similar to an approach that I have been working on for about five years now. In my case this would be used in both developed and non-developed countries, with a percentage of the profits from the developed countries funding the distribution of the system to non-developed countries.
In light of the IPCC and, in the U.S., the EPA and White House mandates to kill the use of coal, and eventually any other fossil-fuel energy sources, my design does not burn anything. This design could use the assets in place at shut down coal plants to continue producing energy in a totally non emmision fashion. The process used does not require water for operation or cooling. As there are no emmisions, there is no need for expensive air quality controls. Making use of the existing generator head, control room and distribution system would also make this system extremely economical as these things would not have to be replicated elsewhere. Once all of the existing coal plants are converted we could then start converting each of the other fuel sourced plants until every power plant runs on this system. This design is soeconomical it would even remove the need for solar, wind and even nuclear as an option.
In non-developed countries container sized installations could be used to provide electricity, refridgeration for medicine and food and also charging for cell phones and more. You could also provide stoves to cook on eliminating the need for cook fires. Set the container in a central location next to a community house or pavilion, then a small distribution network could bring lights to individual houses or tents. Some of the electricity could also provide water movement for agricultural or sanitation purposes.
Units could also be built small enough for single remote houses and still provide everything needed for lights, cooking and small water usage.
More information on this project can be found at and at or by email johnd.murray at yahoo.

September 30, 2013 2:43 pm

“You are correct when you say, “The whole effort will fall apart with the first component that fails,” if the whole economy is so fragile that nobody can afford the replacement part or the technician to replace it. Real economic development has to be part of the program.”
Here is where you are going wrong in your thinking. For the villages that Willis’ idea will most help, the cost of the replacement part and the technician isn’t the whole or necessarily even the biggest problem. These villages are so remote from any modern infrastructure that replacement parts and the technician are weeks to months away assuming they can afford them. If they can’t fix it locally, it can’t be fixed at a cost that even a U.S company would consider reasonable.
“My main complaint with Willis’s proposal is that it misses the dominant factor in the problem, lack of productivity of the adult population which is deeply entangled with the problem of access to energy, access to education and access to productive activity. That why I would like to emphisize that Willis’s idea would be a better idea if it could improve the productive capacity of the adults in these societies as well as the educational opportunities of the children – even if incramentally.”
Where do you get the idea that it won’t? For all intents and purposes, many of these villages are living in the early iron age or worse. Even a tiny amount of electricity (by western standards) will improve their productivity greatly. Why else do you think that the villagers that Willis talks about in his article are willing to go to such great lengths to get it? Even 19th Century tech from the U.S. would greatly improve their productivity and that would be something that they could hope to maintain locally.
If you take someone scraping by at a subsistence level and give them the means to subsist on even a couple of hours less labor per week than before and combined with even a small amount of electric lighting you give that person the means to innovate further improvements.

September 30, 2013 3:36 pm

I saw an NBC program about 2 years ago of about renewables. They featured a funeral home director (woman), in the UK who invested in carbon credits generated by farm workers in India who used a device similar to a treadmill to pump irrigation water. It was heartbreaking. I am not kidding and will do my work my ass off to find any link to that program.

September 30, 2013 4:23 pm

If it was heartbreaking for you because you thought it was a step backwards for the Indian farmers, you were probably wrong. You can’t judge such things by how crops are irrigated in the western world, you have to judge them by what those specific farmers were using before they got the treadmill (which was probably buckets). If they don’t have grid access an electric pump is out of the question and the treadmill is far more productive than a bucket brigade which is likely the method they had in place before the treadmill. The treadmill likely reduces the amount of labor needed to irrigate their crops somewhere between 3 and 10 fold. On top of that if it breaks, the farmers can probably fix it themselves.
As to the carbon credits, if the farmers are actually seeing any of that money, it is effectively free money as they are being paid to make their own lives easier.

John Ledger
September 30, 2013 4:57 pm

Dear Willis
Your gracious reply on the Lesotho thread is deeply appreciated. I am so impressed by the wonderful people that inhabit Planet WUWT! Thank you Anthony!
Willis, please get in touch with me at [John.Ledger at] and let’s plan a trip to South Africa for you and yours! We can surely find the funds for you to do a lecture circuit in these parts.
Every time I see a huge thunderstorm brewing around our place, with the Charlie Bravos rumbling and rolling at 55 000 feet AGL, and the lightning flashing all around, I say to my missus “Look! Eschenbach’s Air Condiitioner!”
Please come and share your wisdom with us! Apartheid is long dead and South Africans are totally technicolour and want to be proud citizens of the world!

Lauren R.
September 30, 2013 5:06 pm

Maybe add 12V automobile battery recharging stations to microgeneration power plants already being built in rural places; for example, in India by OMC Ltd. OMC’s power plants are fueled by solar, wind, and biofuel. Seems like it would make sense to add hydropower, coal-, natural gas-, and petroleum-powered plants to the mix too, depending on what local resources and delivery systems are cheapest.

September 30, 2013 7:00 pm

Matt S.
You are, again, completely correct in your thinking. I am also correct in my thinking. The variance is that you seem content to help make these remote village peoples’ iron age lives more comfortable and secure but don’t see beyond that. I want to offer them an out of the iron age, even the up-river ones, if they want it – some don’t. Maybe all they really want is a smart phone.
I’ve been there too, been their guest, eaten their food all of that. Nice people, when they feel safe with you, but I don’t romanticize tribal life, that’s the childhood of Humanity. We are now on the threshold of adulthood – adolescence has been a bitch. There are things worth remembering from our tribal pasts, things that keep our social relationships, and some of the more primitive portions of our psychologies on an even keel, but there are also a bunch of things worth forgetting.
Uncle Terrence offered the idea years ago that eventually our technologies would become small enough and immersive enough that we’d all go back to the jungle wearing nothing but our digital appliances like a string of beads around our necks. So maybe all these people have to do is just hang out on the fringes long enough that someone will come along from the outside world and hand them a necklace.
Take care,

September 30, 2013 9:22 pm

“The variance is that you seem content to help make these remote village peoples’ iron age lives more comfortable and secure but don’t see beyond that.”
You are wrong. What I see is that if you try to advance them too far too fast the end result will be to make their lives worse not better.

Gail Combs
October 3, 2013 11:19 am

MattS says:
September 30, 2013 at 9:22 pm
….You are wrong. What I see is that if you try to advance them too far too fast the end result will be to make their lives worse not better.
I agree with you. The technology needs to be locally made and locally repairable. ‘Westerners’ have spent 60 years imposing their technology on Africa usually with rotten results. A good example of the type of stepping stone needed is discussed at Leucaena leucocephala collection of links.
Only after people have a stable society that is not ‘Nasty, Brutal and Short’ are they ready for education and a higher level of technology. Theft, dictatorships and wars are one of the biggest problems facing the ordinary people in third world countries. (Description of Rhodesian Bush War with many links from an extremist site. )

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