How technology can help the aid sector to tackle climate change

The subject of climate change this year have taken “Centre Stage” in the news. Greta Thunberg has become a household name due to her initial school strike in Sweden and her ongoing global campaign.  Here in the UK, Extinction Rebellion  have brought parts of London to a complete standstill during two periods of protest this year. The main target of these campaigns have been the big corporates, political parties and governments. But how long will it be before this attention starts to focus on the aid sector?

As aid workers, we want to do good and no harm, but our activities are not exactly green. Many organisations are starting to think about how they can deliver programmes in a green way. We must not pay lip service to climate change by setting up think-tanks or creating a series of academic papers on the topic. We need to be strategic planning and get executive “buy in” from NGO leaders. At the same time we have to take some tactical practical actions now so that we can reduce our carbon footprint.  In this article, I am going to put a spotlight on how technology can be an accelerator to reducing our impact on the environment.

NGOs can be found operating in a wide range of environments ranging from cities to remote locations. The electrical supply to many sites range from city mains power to generator. In some rare cases, sites may already be hooked up to a renewable energy supply. The places where NGOs are doing the most damage are the locations where generators are used. Its is in these places where we can have a major positive impact if we take actions to move from generator to green power generation . This will be a challenge and funding change is the biggest obstacle.  

The other negative impact on the environment is from the large fleets of vehicles operated by NGOs ang UN organisations. The combination of fleet tracking technology and selecting more fuel efficient vehicles can significantly reduce fuel consumption and save money.

So whether it’s a smoking generator or a car, what can we do to reduce the environmental impact?

Here are some practical actions NGOs can start working on now to start the journey to become a zero carbon organisation.

Monitoring: Data is a really powerful tool which can help organisations to make some key decisions about how they manage the provision of electricity. Smart IOT* Technology can be used to measure the energy consumption of a site. In many countries, utility companies are installing smart meters in residences and businesses to measure how much energy is being consumed. The utility companies use the smart meters to automate the billing process. Because this technology is used widely in many countries, the technology is mass produced which makes it affordable

The Eydro monitor (pictured above) cost approximately $300 and is currently being used by some organisations in developing countries to establish energy consumption benchmarks.

Measurements are taken constantly by the current sensors which clip onto the main power supply cables. The main control box is Wi-Fi enabled and sends data to server where all readings are stored and presented as graphs (see below). 

Ideally organisations should try and keep monitoring in place permanently so that after the initial actions to reduce consumption using the data, all future data readings can be used to make sure that sites remain green.

Sustainable Renewable technology: In many locations, solar energy systems are likely to be the best pathway to reaching zero carbon emissions. There are plenty of challenges to address when implementing renewable energy. In the past, the aid sector has had a mix of success and failure when they have tried to implement solar energy systems. This is where lessons need to be captured so that future systems are installed correctly, are built to quality and last for many years.

Here are some examples of best practices aid organisations should build into their technical approach:

  • Skills – The success of a solar project will partly depend upon the expertise of the people who design, source and install systems. The lack of good electricians is a major challenge in some countries, so its essential that a “capacity building” element is included in any solar energy programme.
  • Maintenance & Change management – Very often, solar systems have failed because they have either not been maintained, or power consumption have been increased. There needs to be active management of solar systems using the monitoring technology. Alerts can be set to warn of technical issues. Monitoring will also report on power consumption trends. When an increase is consumption is detected, the change can be investigated. The extra power load can be removed, or the solar system scaled up if more power is needed.
  • Component quality – Local markets may have a range of choices where quality will range from excellent to poor. A solar system needs to be build from good components which will last for many years. Poor quality items are not likely to last long.
  • Crime and Fraud – There is a risk that solar components may be stolen. So installations need to be hardened against theft. Internally, electronic components, cabling and batteries can be placed in strong enclosures which will protect the systems from theft and tampering.

    When sourcing components, organisations need to be aware of fraud. I have some personal experience of poor quality systems being re-ladled with branding of high quality brands. Another fraud risk is where a supplier will re-label a battery or solar panel with a higher capacity than its designed to produced. In 2012, I revealed a fraud to an NGO where the supplier had labelled a poor quality Chinese 80AH battery as a 120AH battery made in Germany!

So, to overcome these challenges there needs to be a structured approach to delivering and then managing the systems. This requires staff training and better sourcing. There is good news on sourcing, the price of components has been falling over the past few years as more solar systems become popular. But in places where good quality parts are not available, part of a wider programme of delivery should be to persuade local suppliers to stock better quality goods.

Donors and funding:  So, in places where there is no reliable power, NGOs will often buy a generator. Most donors will cover the cost of buying the generator in the first place and then ongoing fuel costs. The problem I have with the way the aid sector is funded is the short term mind-set. Donors are rarely keen to invest in longer lasting technology even though the aid programme supported is all about making a longer term difference to the communities aid organisations support!.

The most significant barrier preventing widespread uptake of solar energy within the aid sector is the initial start-up costs, which are often significantly more than financing a generator. But in the longer term, fuel consumption and servicing means that the total cost of ownership is more expensive that solar after a few years.

Schneider Electric is a large corporate who operates in the electrical sector and have many years’ experience working in developing nations. Schneider manufactures a range of energy systems including solar. The graph below illustrates the total cost of ownership of their 14 kVA Villaya Solar system versus a generator. There is a high initial start-up investment of $75,000. Subsequent run costs are very low and the breakeven point is reached at around three years.

The system is designed to last for more than 20 years. At year 13, there is another financial peak where the batteries need replacing.  The battery spec is interesting as they are sodium based and designed to last for over a decade. When they reach the end of life, the chemical composition of the batteries is significantly less harmful to the environment than NiMH or Lead Acid batteries.

The graph clearly illustrates the longer term financial savings as well as the improved environmental performance. But what is missing is the funding approach by donors and aid organisations. The aid sector need to identify a way to fix the funding issue as soon as possible otherwise our quest to become green will fail!

Some organisations are working on the funding issue already. There are also third party organisations who can provide solar systems to aid organisations with a zero start-up cost. They use a cost recovery model such as pay per KHW in the same way that a utility company would charge for power in a city. NGOs could also consider using unrestricted funding to finance systems and then charge back fees to donors to recover the initial investment and ongoing costs.

Some NGOs already use unrestricted funds to by vehicles and then lease the vehicles to the donor funded programmes.

Lets get started!: Whilst it may take some time to develop the correct funding model to implement larger scale solar systems, there is plenty we can be doing now to reduce our carbon footprint. These actions can be taken across all sites (generator or mains power supplied). This activity is also low cost!

  • Move to more efficient lighting – LED is a very efficient form of lighting. See comparison above with traditional lighting methods.
  • IT consumes a lot of energy, so moving servers to the cloud will reduce on site energy consumption. Laptops consume about 30% of the energy used by a standard desktop.
  • Review where we use Air Conditioning – Are we using too many air-con units in some sites? Can fans be used instead?
  • Where possible, use more open plan offices – they can be more energy efficient than a site consisting of multiple small rooms.
  • Data:  Use IOT to monitor energy consumption. Proactively use the data to monitor energy consumption and make decisions to reduce energy consumption.

    This data may reveal changes which could be made such as reducing the generator size if its too big.
  • Store energy: why run a generator 24 hours a day when some of the energy could be stored in batteries? During off peak hours, basic services such as IT and communications can remain online and powered from a battery back up.
  • Collaborate: Where NGOs are working in very close proximity with each other, sharing resources such as generators can reduce the overall impact on the environment.

Fleet: Moving away from power generation, the large fleets operated by NGOs have a massive carbon footprint. Technology and data could play a potential role to help reduce fuel consumption. Some organisations such as World Vision have well established fleet management systems which is making fleet operations more efficient. There are two main components to a fleet system which are needed.

  • Tracking (Also known as IVMS**): This is the technology which is installed on vehicles to capture its location, speed and engine information such as fuel consumption. These tracking systems often include a communications module which sends information to a central fleet management system. In addition to the green benefits, IVMS helps security managers to keep staff safe
  • Fleet Management System (FMS): FMS tracks data received from each vehicle along. It also holds data about the drivers and servicing. IVMS can provide real-time alerting when certain policies such as speed limits are breached. Data can be used to influence drivers behaviour so that they drive more economically. FMS can also include a booking and dispatch systems so that vehicle tasking is more efficient. By combining several journeys into one.

Conclusion: There is a clear and present danger to society if we do not start to adopt a greener way to conduct humanitarian operations quickly. Technology can be a great accelerator in delivering results. Funding the change is a challenge and the aid sector needs to develop a strategy to make the changes needed.

Climate change will have a massive negative impact on communities. Livelihoods will be destroyed. Communities will simply disappear as climate change destroys crops and create water shortages.

Practical action is needed now. Aid organisations need to do their bit. We will not solve this climate crisis through the formation of think tanks, discussion groups and other “Talking shops” Its only through practical action we will make a change.

* IOT: Internet of Things
** IVMS: In Vehicle Monitoring System