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):
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 …
Figure 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,