Home Worker – Solar Energy Bench Test

In the last edition, I highlighted the challenges faced by home workers who live in locations where the power supply is either intermittent or is not available at all. Since the article was published, I have carried out rigorous testing of two systems. Both performed well. One system was “Out of the box” and the other system was built from separate components I was able to source from suppliers in the UK.

The quickest solution is to buy a solution which has been pre-built. But with the world in lockdown and many flights cancelled it may not be possible to import solutions, so the “Build your own” option may be the only way to provide power. In addition to the home solar designs below, I was recently asked to look at design for 20 staff.

Voltaic Arc 20W Solar Charger Kit: This system is supplied by Planson International. Over the course of four days, I was able to use a Lenovo X390 laptop without needing to connect to the mains power to top up.

The Lenovo X90 uses around 65 Watts when charging which is a little more than the capacity provided from the solar panel, however it only takes just over an hour to charge. Testing was conducted in the UK during sunny weather (early April). During the testing enough energy was created to produce two full laptop charges a day.

It is also possible to get more from a charge by doing the following:

  • Use battery save functions
  • Do not play music – it consumes power
  • Reduce the screen light power (try to work in a shaded place
  • During conference calling, avoid video if possible.

The Voltaic kit also comes with a LED light which is more than sufficient for a desk and a mains charger which can be used to charge the battery in the places where intermittent power is needed.

 100W Home kit (Built from separate components: This system can be built from components purchased locally. In the UK, the following components were purchased from RS components (rswww.com).

  • 100W Solar Panel             $160                                                 
  • 100 A/H Lead acid battery                     $280
  • 100W Inverter                                        $70                                          
  • Controller (10A)                                          $80
  • Cables and plugs                                        $80

For a total of approximately $680, this system is sufficient to power a few LED lights, a laptop, mobile phone and a printer. The purpose of the controller is to manage the power from the solar panel so that the batteries is now overcharged. The controller also has a display which indicates how much charge is being generated, and how much energy is stored in the battery.

This system can also be scaled up. With the same controller, two further 100W panels can be added (Bringing the capacity to 300W or 9A). Additional batteries can also be added to the system to increase storage capacity. Important Note: Energy loads must always be connected to the output terminals on the controller and not to the battery directly. This will prevent the battery from being completely drained (which can cause damage to the battery).

The inverter in this design provides a maximum power of 100W. Larger inverters can be used, but till consume power more quickly. Given that it often takes just over an hour to charge many laptops, I think a single invertor will be sufficient for charging laptops.

For lighting, I would recommend 12V LED lights rather than using 220V lights connected to an inverter. This is more energy efficient as there are often energy losses within most inverters.

Small office Design for 20 users

When designing a system for a small office, it’s important to work out what the overall load is. This will help to identify what components will need to be purchased to build the system. Once the system has been set up, it must only be used for the power load it was designed for. If more items are loaded (e.g. more computers) the system may not have the capacity to support the increased load without upgrading the solar system first.

Many years ago, I developed a tool to estimate the size of a solar energy system. This first screenshot lists the items we need to power.

The load list does not contain items like fridges and security lights as I would recommend buying dedicated stand-alone solutions which have their own panels built-in. Please note that in addition to power load information, it’s important to include information about how long each item is used each day.

The next table calculates the amount of panels and batteries needed to provide the power for the load listed in the first table. The battery bank has been specified to store enough energy for three days. The solar panel has been designed to produce enough energy to service the load and provide a little extra power which can be used to store up energy for three days.

So for this load, if we use 100W solar panels, and 100A/H batteries, we will need 29 Panels and a bank of 50 Batteries. In addition to this, we will need a fairly large controller which can handle 150 Amps. Larger controllers also require bigger cables to transfer the power. In some places higher capacity cables and controllers can be difficult to source, but it’s possible to achieve the same result by building three smaller 50A systems.

As a very rough guide, here is an estimate for building the system above.

  • 150 Amp controller:        $2300
  • 50 Batteries:                      $1250
  • 29 Panels                             $4640
  • Inverter 2KW                     $1000
  • Cables etc                            $1500
    Total                                    $10,690

This is a rough estimate which does not include shipping and taxes. Whilst the initial set up cost is high, over time, the overall return on investment is good as no fuel is used. The only component which needs to be changed from time to time is the batteries.

Conclusion: Solar energy can be a great solution for remote locations where power is not available. It is also a cleaner method of providing energy. With some good planning, selection of low powered office systems, smaller power systems can be purchased. Good discipline is also important as it’s easy for a system to fail to deliver if extra load is added which was not planned for.  

Solving the energy problem for the Covid-19 homeworker in an off-grid enviorment

Over the next few weeks, I am going to be focusing on technical topics which can may assist the aid sector in our fight against COVID-19. So let me kick off this series of articles by addressing one important issue that affects aid workers living in the “Global South”  – lack of stable electricity at home.  There are still vast sectors within cities where reliable power is absent. Over the past week, I have had heard that staff need to send laptops back to the office to be charged so that they can continue working. This requires staff to move around and mix, which goes against our practice of trying to stop this virus from spreading.

So here are a few ideas to overcome the problem.

  1. Power consumption: Before we explore any power solutions, it’s important to have an understanding about how much power is needed to keep a staff member productive. Effectively we need to create a power budget. The idea here is to strip consumption back to the absolute minimum so we only need to build the smallest power solution and keep costs down.

    So basic needs are:
    1. Laptop computer (Without the external monitor as this uses extra power!)
    1. Mobile phone and or a 3G/4G hotspot
    1. LED light for the workplace.

Mobile phones and most 3 or 4G hotspots / dongles can be powered directly from the computer (but will reduce computer battery life). Portable solar powered lanterns can also be a great solution for the home office. If possible, try to avoid using additional technology like printers, scanners and external monitors if you can.  The camera on a mobile phone can be used as a very effective scanner with apps like Microsoft Office Lens. Online electronic signature software should also be used by organisations so that there is no need to print hard copies for signature.

Interesting Fact: During the Ebola Crisis, medical staff did everything online – including prescriptions as paper is a great medium to pass a dangerous virus between people!

The laptop is the main consumer of power so we need to understand how much power the laptop will use so that we can size up the correct power solution. Our target should be to provide enough power so that the computer will run for at least 8 hours. Ideally I would like to cap it at 8 hours in the interest of work-life balance, but some people may need to work for longer periods, especially if they are supporting the COVID-19 response.

The basic rule of physics which applies here is this:  Larger power needs require larger power systems, hence more costs!  So one quick win here is to look at the office computer estate and if possible, carry out some temporary redistribution so that the more power thirsty computers are allocated to staff that live in places where there is stable power. This will leave the more efficient computers for the people who live in the off grid areas.

So here are some power budgets for two popular computers used by NGOs

Model Lenovo X390 Lenovo T470p
Power adapter 65W 90W
Battery Capacity 48 WH 48 WH
Battery Life 3.8 hours 2.5 hours
  • Battery life is subjective to how the computer is being used.

The X series computer would be a better computer for a power starved setting it needs less energy (65W) to charge, and the battery last longer.

TIP: Computer battery life can be extended by using power save function on the laptop, and by installing larger battery packs (But larger batteries take longer to charge!)

  • Unreliable power scenario: In this scenario, we will look at what solution we could use to keep a laptop running in a location where power supplies are intermittent. The following solution is fairly cost effective.

This system is designed to use the grid power when its available  to charge up  battery. The charger should be high power, at least 30 Amps or more charging capacity. The cheaper low power charges would take too long to fully charge! The battery should be around 120 AH or more so that it can run an inverter for up to 10 hours. A 100W inverter should be sufficient to charge a laptop. Many inverters have a USB charging point built in which can power a phone.

Safety first: When a battery is charging, it can produce hydrogen gas which is explosive. So lead acid batteries should be placed in well-ventilated and away from any naked fames (such as a cooker).  

As this system supplies 220V AC, be careful that others in the house do not plug things into the system and steal your electricity!

  • No Power: For locations which is completely off grid, here is a design which should be sufficient to keep the technology running for a homeworker.

The 120W panel at peak will produce 120W energy, but it could be less when the sun is weaker earlier or later in the day. So the idea is to locate the panel in a place where it will get the maximum sunlight. The controller uses the power from the panel to charge the battery. The 20A specification means that the system can be scaled up to two panels if more capacity is needed.  

During the day, the system should produce  600-800 w/h of energy which is more than sufficient to run a computer, LED light and a charge a mobile phone.

Safety first: When a battery is charging, it can produce hydrogen gas which is explosive. So lead acid batteries should be placed in well-ventilated and away from any naked fames (such as a cooker).  

On cloudy days, solar panels will still produce some electricity but not as much as on a sunny day. As a temporary solution, this design with connecting cables should cost no more than $650. For longer term use, I would recommend doubling up on the panel and battery as it will store more power and will keep a laptop working for more than a couple of days during bad weather.

TIP: The inverter I have specified can be plugged into a car, so this is a good back up plan should energy stored in the two systems above run out of energy. Make sure that the engine is running (out in the open!) when an inverter is in use.

Conclusion: These two solutions are a “Quick and Dirty” design. It utilises components which are readily available from online retailers or hardware stores. Components can be sourced easily in global south countries. The design can also be fine-tuned to match specific power requirements by people who have experience in this field.

Solving the energy storage problem

Around the world, the use of wind and solar farms is increasing as the efficiency of panels and wind generators increase and production costs fall. In the global north, the large renewable energy plants feed power into national grid systems which means that we can reduce our carbon impact by using the gas, coal and oil fired power stations less. But, there is an issue. Whilst we can produce plenty of energy from energy farms, we have not yet really figured out how to store the megawatts of energy efficiently. During a cycle ride from London to Gibraltar last year, I passed through many wind farms in France and Spain. On windy days, there were times when only have of the turbines were not turning. So whilst we have all of this infrastructure, the maximum benefit cannot be realised as we do not have the technology to facilitate the mass storage of electricity.

For smaller solar systems like the ones we would use in the aid sector to power a school or a clinic, the same power storage problem exists. In most countries we store energy in lead acid batteries or some other variant. The use of Solar systems can reduce the carbon footprint, but at the same time we are producing a lot of environmental waste which is not good for the communities where the aid sector is meant to be “doing no harm”

The Battery Problem: The most widely used component in a small solar system is the lead acid battery. The same battery as we use in vehicles. In a vehicle, the lead acid battery normally lasts up to three years which is its expected life. This is because the engine will keep the battery charged. In a solar system the lead acid battery may last two years if we are lucky. Unlike in a vehicle, the battery will frequently be drained to less than 50% of its capacity. If this happens often, longer term damage occurs in the battery cells. The hot climates where NGOs operate also has a negative effect on the battery shortening its life further.

Given the short life span of lead acid batteries, the by-product of the green solar systems is a lot of toxic waste. This is can be a massive issue in developing countries where they are not geared up for recycling.

Lithium Ion batteries are often seen as a good alternative to lead acid batteries because they can hold more charge. But there are some major disadvantages. Lithium Ion batteries contain some very toxic chemicals and have a troubled history of catching on fire. Most airlines will not transport larger lithium batteries due to the fire risk.

An alternative approach:  There are better technologies and in the future we will see innovation come from the automotive industry.  Tesla and other manufactures of electric cars are working hard to develop battery technology which will allow electric vehicles to go much further than they can today. As vehicles move from petrol and diesel to electric, the mass production of new battery technologies will bring the cost of energy storage down. Where the automotive industry produces answers for energy storage, in the aid sector, we will be able to take advantage of new battery technology for our solar systems.

We have been using electric vehicles for many years and there are already battery technology we can use now to make our solar systems more sustainable. Schneider Electric uses Nickel Sodium batteries to store energy in its Vilaya range of solar systems.  

The Nickel Sodium battery (This example made by FZSoNICK) works in an interesting way. The battery need to be warmed up so that the salt inside melts. Once the battery is at its operating temperature, energy can be stored and discharged as needed. The lifetime of the battery is 13-15 years. At the end of life, the waste product is a block of salt and some associated electronics.

The FZSoNICK has the ability to store 10 KWH of energy in this single unit. The cost for one battery is roughly $10,000. It’s a big upfront costs, but there is a return on investment over time. So let’s take a closer look at the numbers.

A good quality deep cycle 90AH battery will cost around $(US)250 and can store 1KWH of energy. Taking in account that we don’t want to discharge a lead acid battery than 40%, then we need to buy more batteries than the stated capacity to ensure that we can store and use the 10KW without damaging the battery bank. So for this example, we would need to buy 14 lead acid batteries at a cost of  $3500. As the lifetime of the battery is likely to be two years or less, over the course of 12 years, we would need to change the batteries 6 times, which comes to a total of $21,000 or more. This does not include other costs such as installation and shipping.  

So whilst there is a higher start-up costs, the return on investment is significant. But there are other advantages which you will see in the following summary:

  • Cheaper to run over a long period
  • Batteries take up much less space which means less cables are needed for installation.
  • No fire risk from gasses such as hydrogen
  • End of life waste is smaller as this technology does not use as many materials as other batteries. The main waste product is a block of salt.
  • Battery is stable and safe to transport
  • Good return on investment

Deployment example: Nickel Sodium batteries are built into complete systems such as the Villaya solar system from Schneider Electric. The solar plant is transportable with electronics installed and fixed to the walls of the an ISO container. This approach is great for disaster preparedness due to its mobility.  

This system can produce enough power to run a small office. In addition to the power circuits, communications technology can also be fitted inside the container so that internet connectivity can be provided in addition to electricity.

The Villaya system is designed with the appropriate systems to protect the circuits from lightning, which means that this system is very well suitable for topical and sub-tropical locations such as Africa.

For disaster response, where it may be difficult to move a container quickly, it’s possible to design the same system into other  formats which can be broken down to smaller shipping units for future assembly at a disaster site.

Sustainability: We know that solar panels have a long life if looked after. Nickel Sodium Batteries also have a long life which means that a system built on this technology will be sustainable, but technology is not the only area we need to make sustainable. We need to build peoples capacity. As we adopt new sustainable technology, with built in monitoring systems, these systems will become more complex. We need to initiate a training programme to build the skills of the people who will source, install and maintain solar energy systems.  NGOs will have a massive role to play here as they work in very remote locations. If they can adopt green energy systems instead of generators, other sectors might do the same.

In my next article, I will discuss how we in the aid sector should establish teams within our organisations to take ownership of environmental affairs and build the skills in house to help reduce the carbon footprint.  

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

Great energy inventions

In the 1990’s Trevor Baylis a British inventor saw a TV program about the spread of AIDS in Africa. One of the ways to prevent the spread of AIDs and other diseases is through education and information using radio broadcasts. The dissemination of information over the airways requires the target audience to have radios. At the time, most radios needed mains power or batteries. Baylis recognised that access to electric would be a massive challenge and that another solution would be needed. baygen

Baylis immediately set to work and invented the first wind up radio which enabled the radio to be charged up by an internal dynamo operated by a hand crank.  He eventually went on to form Freeplay energy which is still operating today and still innovating new products.

In addition to radio receivers, Freeplay also produce a wide range of other products which are well suited to remote settings where electricity remains a challenge. The original wind up technology has been refined over the years and is more efficient. Freeplay has incorporated solar technology into their solutions which means that radios can be powered throughout the day without any need to turn the handle! I am pleased they have retained the concept as radios can still be used if they run out of charge during the night.

Over the years, I have seen similar products from other manufactures, but during a recent evaluations of Freeplay products, I was impressed by the quality of build. For remote locations, any technology must be built strong enough to withstand the harsh conditions and be reliable. This is really important as once the technology is shipped, it’s not easy to fly it back to the factory for a replacement.

 In this article, we will explore some of the Freeplay product and discover how they can add a lot of value to communities which are remote or affected by a crisis.

As an organization, Freeplay manufactures small portable products for families. The technology is targeted at a number of markets such as emergency preparedness, aid & development and any consumer who engages in outdoor activities such as camping.

Encore Radio
encoreThis radio is well suited for use in developing nations. The radio has been cleverly designed so that it can receive longer range broadcasts over two SW bands. For local broadcasts, the radio can receive AM and FM. I was also impressed with the built in recording function which allows the radio to record broadcasts and save them to memory cards in MP3 format via the built in card reader.

In addition to recording programs in MP3 format, these radios can be used in schools as a tool to enhance education. Any MP3 content can be played. Up to 125 audio books can be stored on a 32GB SD card!

Power for the radio and its two inbuilt bright LED lights are charged up from the crank handle at the rear or the small solar panel on the top. (A larger external solar panel is also included).

This is not the only radio made by Freeplay, there are others available which are designed for different uses such as emergency preparedness.

Energy Hub
The Energy Hub is a small solar system designed for a small household. The kit comes with a controller and two lights (as pictured). An external solar panel can charge the battery up in 6 hours to full capacity. On a full charge, two bulbs on high setting will run for 8 hours. A single bulb on 50% setting will run for 32 hours.

The cables for the lights and panel are sufficiently long enough to allow for permanent installation in a small family hut.

LanternReliance Lantern
Over the years, I have seen a number of lanterns but this one really impresses me not just for the build quality, but for the overall design. Its built to withstand weather and shock and can provide light up to 45 hours on a single charge. It also has a built in Siren which is really useful in some applications.

The Lantern Library:  Good technology can cost money, and I have heard of innovative projects such as “Lantern Libraries” where lanterns are held by schools and kept charged up. The idea is for pupils to borrow a lantern from school (sometimes for a small cost recovery fee) to take home. In darkness, the pupil has a light to see their way home, and at home, the pupil can study using the light. The addition of the built-in alarm just makes the whole concept better as a child can activate it if he/she is attached.

Freeplay’s original concept to connect communities to broadcasters is just as relevant today as it was back in the 1990s when Trevor Baylis launched his first wind up products. In the Aid and Development sector, mobile phone networks are used by the UN and NGOs to interact with communities. Whether it’s a cash voucher system, SMS reminders for appointments at clinics or community engagement via collection of feedback over SMS, mobile phones are needed and they need to be charged. This requirement has not escaped Freeplay as in the three technologies we reviewed, all of them have built in sockets and supplied with the appropriate adaptors to charge up most mobile phones and other USB devices.

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 www.kubeenergy.com