Beyond the Grid

One of the biggest challenges for NGOs who operate in remote places is keeping the lights on, especially in locations where national power infrastructure is unreliable. These remote locations are “beyond the grid” so any power requirements need to be provided by organisations themselves.  Generators are the most frequent solution to power problems, but are expensive to run and maintain. A simple failure of a vital component or late delivery of fuel will plunge a site into darkness for a number of days. Lack of power also means other vital services such as communications will begin to fail as backup batteries start to run out of power.

Solar energy systems are often considered as a suitable alternative. As a technologist in the aid sector, I tend to be bombarded with loads of promotional blurb about solar energy dressed up as “The latest scientific breakthrough !” I want to dispel the sales hype from these organisations as 99% of the targeted adverting I receive  is not offering anything new. Solar energy is a very well established industry, offering a very simple solution of solar panels to collect energy, batteries to store it, and some wibbly wobbly electrics to move the power around the circuits. Solar energy as a concept could be considered as a mature product and thus no different to any other market. There plenty of manufacturers and thousands of companies who sell and install the systems. And like other industries, you will find that there is a range of qualities from good to bad. So there is not really much happening which is new in the form of technical innovation.

In this article, I will briefly set out some of the reasons why we might wish to change to solar energy for some sites. I will also cover the reasons why the current approach to solar energy often ends up in failure. Finally I will explain how one organisations is kick starting a pilot to use a new model which could deliver sustainable solar energy systems. Save the Children is being offered an opportunity to take advantage of this new pilot!

smokinWhy change?
In large offices, it’s unlikely that generators can be avoided, simply due to the power needed to run the office and the lack of space to set up an array of solar panels large enough to service the power demand. There are however,  plenty of sites where power loads are modest and could be served by a solar system. A well-designed good quality solar system can outlive generators, are less likely to fail,  quiet and will not pollute. Incorrect implementation of generators lead to unstable power which can destroy sensitive electronics. Poor management of fuel supplies or theft adds to the overall expense of delivering power. During my travels, I have seen plenty of examples where the set-up of  power systems have presented an outright danger to people (a subject covered in some depth in a previous article).


The problem with the current solar approach
Over the years,  I have seen many attempts by NGOs to adopt solar energy systems. Many of these systems have not lasted long. Some have failed within a few months after the engineers have left. In Nimule Hospital, South Sudan, a very complicated solar panel array was installed at great expense. The panels were mounted on a mechanical frame which used motors to keep the array pointed at the sun. In my opinion, this was an over engineered solution with too many components which could fail. A great solution for places with access to spares and qualified engineers,  but for a location where there is no ongoing support, this was the wrong solution.

There are other challenges. Real daft things start to happen as shown in the picture to the left. An inverter falls onto the battery bank, no attempt has been made to fix the problem.  Other things are stored in the battery room. Notice the gas bottle to the bottom right? A leak and a spark could result in a significant explosion.

Even when things are set up well and there are qualified electricians to keep on top of things, there will are still significant challenges:

  • Lack of budget or proper design leads to a solar system which is not large enough to service the demand
  • Lack of change management leads to new items being added to the site, more load means that power will not last as long.
  • Where local users are not correctly briefed in the use of power, then batteries will run out of power early.

The solar energy market also has its share of corrupt suppliers. I have direct experience of a situation in the DRC where a supplier tried to pass off cheap Chinese manufactured components as good quality BP solar systems. The fraud did not stop at that. The supplier managed re-labelled products so that panels designed to deliver 100W were labelled as 140W!  As with most industries, there is always a risk of this sort of fraud, and sadly these crooks will often get away with this practice as there is a lack of engineers working for NGOs with the required skills to spot these issues.

Whilst there are plenty of bad examples, I have seen a handful of systems which have been implemented well. In Liberia, West Coast Solar has been building solar energy systems for clinics belonging to the Ministry of Health and  Social Welfare for many years. Their approach ensures that their solutions are fit for purpose and deliver power efficiently for year. As a standard approach, WCS builds in some autonomy so that enough power is stored in batteries to keep the lights on during the days when the weather is overcast.

How the approach to providing solar energy will be disrupted.
Until scientist start to make massive leaps forward in ways that would enable solar panels to produce more power and for batteries to be able to store more energy, we need to find breakthroughs elsewhere. Why is this important?  Firstly, if these technical breakthroughs happen, it takes a long time for new innovations to reach the market as mass produced products. Secondly, the current technology is fit for purpose, it’s just the application of the current technology where breakthroughs are needed.

In a nutshell, here is the solution!

Be more holistic when considering a solar energy system: It is not good enough to just replace a generator with a solar energy system. The design should also change the technology we buy which uses power. Why?  A good solar energy system will generate power for a few hours each day. Energy is stored in batteries. Once all of the energy has been used, there will be no more power created until the sun comes out again. One of the biggest drains on power is caused by inverters, a device designed to convert DC power stored in the batteries to 220V AC. Inverters waste money and its possible that they can be eliminated completely by using DC circuits only. Here are some examples:

  • LED lights have moved efficient energy consumption forward significantly over the past 5 years. Some LED lights can produce the same amount of light as a 100W bulb, yet only consumes 5W or less.
  • Radio equipment runs on 12V, so why do we need to waste energy at the inverter to generate 220V and then use a transformer to reduce it back to 12V again for the radio?
  • Laptops are more efficient than desktop computers. So why not buy laptops for the office and charge them using the same DC charges as people use on aircraft?
  • 12V printers can be used in office spaces.
  • Mobile phones and satellite telephones can also run on 12V. We routinely charge these devices in cars, so why not on a 12V grid in the office?

There will be some things where we will always require 220V, that’s fine, but if we can reduce as many items to 12V as possible, then our energy budget starts to look very sustainable.

Consider a managed solution: A new social enterprise based in Norway may have the solution. Kube Energy wants to work with NGOs to deliver sustainable solar energy solutions. They are developing a very interesting model where they source good quality solar systems and then use qualified local partners to install and then maintain the systems. The uptake of solar energy in developing nations for domestic programmes has led to an increase is manufacturing of solar systems. Since 2010, the increase is manufacturing as resulted in a 60% fall in hardware costs. This means that the concept of using solar instead of a generator is more than financially viable. So what is it Kube does that is different?

The top line benefit is that the NGO will be provided with energy with no upfront costs. Kube uses a leasing model which means that the cost to set up and maintain the system is recovered through monthly payments. Over the lifetime of the system, operational costs will be less than operating a diesel generator. A well designed solar system which is sized correctly to support the load will not have a lot of downtime. Generators on the other hand need to be switched off after a few hours to rest.

What will make this model a success is the way the system will be monitored and maintained. With modern technology it’s possible to monitor and analyse power usage. Any changes in patterns can be quickly identified and actions can be taken to keep the system viable. These actions could include the removal of new and unauthorised loads from the site, or perhaps modification to the system to support a new load.

In their promotional materials, Kube has set out how much money could be saved over a 5 year period for an office which uses 65 KWH per day. This case study was based on a medium size office running 5 aircons, 25 computers, flood lights and an internet connection.

kube stats

If commissioned by an NGO to deliver a solar system, Kube will work closely with the NGO to assess the site. The Kube team will look at the best places to position solar panels, calculate the size of the system (based on load), assess access for delivery and how to secure the system. Based on the outcome of the assessment, Kube will be able to prepare a solar lease proposal.

Kube will then use the assessment data to design a system. Their energy systems range from 5KW up to 200KW. Their systems have been modelled on the designs used by the telecoms industry where reliable systems are needed to power mobile phone towers.

As soon as the lease has been agreed, Kube will deploy local partners to deliver and install the new solar system.

I think we are now at a turning point when it comes to solar energy. If Kube can get its leasing business model off the ground, I believe that it will be a great success as long as system are maintained and organisations are disciplined in the use of power and not add new demands without revising the overall system design. Of course the provision of solar energy system needs to complimented by other actions such as using LED lights and reducing the need for inverters and transformers through the adoption of DC equipment.

For NGOs, there is a now an opportunity to try the model. In 2016, Kube is seeking funding to kick start several pilots. Once they have sourced funding, they will reach out to NGOs for sites to run these pilots. You can learn more about Kube at

Keeping up to date to stay safe.

NGOs work in some of the most unstable places on this planet. In some locations there are serious risks from potential natural disasters such as cyclones, volcanoes and earthquakes. Staff safety is also put at risk by man-made events such as war, acts of terrorism or public protest.

Organisations have a duty to keep people safe and will have policies in place to govern how aid is delivered in such a way that risks to staff are reduced.

The flow of information about events is regarded as very important for two reasons:  Firstly if the event happens in a place where the organisation operates, accurate information will enable decision makers to take the correct actions to keep staff safe. Secondly, event information is useful to organisations far away from an event. For example, an alert about a severe earthquake would give emergency response personnel a heads up that they might soon be deployed.

In this article, we will explore some warning and monitoring tools – some are free of charge, others need to be paid for. Note – I have saved the best to last!

Free alerts
There are many organisation on the web which send out alerts when significant natural events take place. The Global Disaster Alert and Coordination System (GDACS) is supported by the UN and EU. GDACS is constantly kept up date with many events ranging from minor to major. Coverage is fully global and its free to set up an account.


Anyone can set up an account at As soon as the account is active, users will be able to customise settings so that they can receive alerts and updates about various types of natural disaster. For those with a specific interested in a certain geographical region or country, the account can be set to send alerts which only cover the geographical area of interest.

For major natural events such as strong earthquakes near population centres, cyclones and Tsunami alerts, GDACs will send out SMS alerts to subscribers in addition to email messages.

For those with Smartphones, GDACs can be accessed via a fee app.

Other free resources: In addition to GDACs, there are various local options around the world – especially in areas where there are frequent risks. The USGS runs an alert service for seismic events which covers the globe. Weather is a severe risk to the USA and they have set up the National Hurricane Centre (part of NOAA). Their website is a great place to track hurricanes as they form out to sea. Although NOAA is operated by the US Government, the area of coverage includes the Caribbean.

NOAA used to push email and text alerts. This stopped a few years ago as messaging was outsourced to third parties. The link to the NOAA site will take you to a list of third parties who distribute information – some do it for free.

United States Geographical Survey: United States Weather (NOAA)

Commercial Solutions
International SOSInternational SOS / Control Risks: In addition to natural disasters, travellers need to know about manmade events such as riots, demonstrations, war, acts of terrorism and other risks. Many NGOs use a service which is provided jointly by International SOS and Control risks. Organisations often buy in this service along with medical insurance. Staff who belong to organisations  which have subscribed to this service will be able to keep up to date about local  significant events which can present a risk to safety. The app also links users to country information useful to travellers – normally information about visas, security, travel, medical and culture information for business travellers. A button is also included so that the local number for International SOS is dialled should medical assistance be required.

Safeture – Global Warning System (GWS): Whilst free solutions such as GDACs are free, they should only be regarded as one jigsaw in the big safety and security picture. International SOS/Control Risks are two very reputable organisations who provide really reliable information from its network of global agents. Safeture GWS to me is the Gold standard as this system is much more than a means to access information or connect people to medical assistance. GWS connects staff to their safety and security teams in a very ingenious way using the technology that exists in may smart phones.

GWS an advanced safety and security management system. The control portal allows managers to sign on and view current information alerts for all countries where staff are based. Safeture has developed a system which captures information from a wide variety of sources ranging from local news services to global systems like GDACs. For events of high importance such as Tsunami alerts, the system is designed to get the alerts to staff automatically as services such as USGS and GDACs are regarded as trusted sources. Real people will monitor further news following any event and will rerelease information as soon as its been verified (This happens quickly by the way).

Important messages are delivered to users via SMS as well as the internet App.

The screen shot below shows the main overview screen. Staff locations are displayed along with a link so that managers can send messages directly to staff by SMS. In an event such as a terrorist attack,  this system gives organisations the ability to track staff, account for their safety and to send instructions  – perhaps informing them of a safe place to muster.


GWS can be downloaded as an app onto Android, Apple, Blackberry and Microsoft smartphones.

The GWS app utilises several features on the smartphone to provide the end user with a complete safety and security service.  The app uses a combination of GPS and network triangulation to establish the users location. This enables the app to display relevant national information. Users can also display information for other countries. GPS is also used to report the users location back to the system so that managers can monitor.

The SOS button brings up a new screen which allows the user to call local emergency services such as the police. If such a call is made, notification goes back to the system to let managers know that an SOS call has been made.

Staff may not wish to be monitored all of the time if they are present in their home countries and “off duty” To protect the privacy of the user, the smart phone can be set to only report which country the user is located, but not where in that country.

In addition to news and alerts, WGS also displays country information. The content is similar to what is provided by Control Risks, but organisations can also add further information such as country office locations, contact lists, and curfew information.


In highly insecure environments this is possibly the most effective security solution I have seen to date. Specialist tracking devices can attract the wrong sort of information. The ability to deliver an information and tracking system on devices which people already own is just pure ingenuity. This system will work well in most places where there is basic mobile coverage. In places where there is no internet access, staff will be able to receive important alerts via SMS and then send back their locations by SMS by pressing a button on the handset. Safeture GWS would be a great investment for any organisation who take safety and security seriously.