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Bringing open-source electricity production to Africa

Date Released: Fri, 20 January 2012 11:16 +0200

By Joe Olivier, Eco-preneur.


Their mission is to provide the skills to create affordable (currently 2-3 times cheaper than solar Photovoltaic) energy to off-grid communities.

The results so far have been impressive; with huge demand for training and the wind turbines, the team in Kisumu are working hard on increasing the capacity to provide for the thousands of requests.

access:energy have been developing the technology for over a year now and the designs keep getting better. Currently, further prototyping and research is being conducted at Yale University in the United States where Harrison Leaf, one of access: energy’s founders, studies environmental science.

Joe Oliver, recently met up with Harrison during a brief trip back to London to learn about access: energy and how it all works in practice.

JO: You mention that access: energy designs for the 12V economy, can you tell me more about what this means?

HL: Essentially it”s about making technologies fit for the context of developing countries.

Large portions of the countries we work in don”t have a functioning grid system. In Kenya, this is only 15 percent of people connected to the grid, leaving a sweeping majority of the population unconnected, that’s over 30 million people in this situation in Kenya alone.

To have access to some sort of energy, these people get it by running a small diesel generator, or using solar panels to charge 12V batteries.

There are these 12V charging stations that charge over 20 or 30 batteries, where people arrive and pick up a battery, use it for a few days and then bring it all the way back.

This ends up being time consuming and expensive, as they have to travel long distances to reach this energy supply, walking for hours and paying for transport.

Compared to the UK who runs its electricity on 220-240V AC current, the term “12V economy” conceptualises the situation for the 500 million people in Africa living in the conditions spelled out above.

The default for these people is 12V, so rather than try to change the whole system our approach is to provide a better solution using the existing technological infrastructure.

JO: So to provide for these people you designed an efficient turbine that could be made by anyone. How much training is required to teach someone to build one of your turbines?

HL: It takes two days to train a person how to build one. One workshop that we carry out can train up to 15 individuals. To train them to become trainers takes longer.

JO: How long is the production process of one windmill?

HL: A mechanic working on his own can build one in a day with basic hand tools, a power drill and a welder – no heavy machinery is needed. We’re working on our manufacturing processes to speed this up.

JO: That is a very short time to develop your own power station in the backyard! How did you develop the concept?

HL: At the very start of the process, we went to Kenya and spent 6 months working and designing with local informal sector manufacturers – these people were really instrumental in our research process. It was clear at the end of that period that, due mainly to supply chain constraints, an off-grid solution that could be built in situ using locally available materials stood the best chance of addressing energy poverty.

JO: So back to the technical details, if the turbine is used to charge batteries, how long would it take to fully charge one?

HL: This depends on a number of factors, but to fully charge your average battery it would take 3 hours.

JO: What other organisations have you worked with along the way?

HL: We have done preliminary training work with Handicap International, installed a pilot power station for Cluster Foundation – both non-profit organisations based in Kenya who work to empower socially excluded communities.

We are currently in talks with Practical Action to provide training to their programme leaders. A local ecological agriculture NGO, REAP, gave us some great in-kind support at the beginning. And of course we must mention Segal Foundation, a startup-focussed charitable fund that has sponsored our activities up to now.

JO: How would the micro-power station be California Colorado Connecticut District of Columbia Hawaii Idaho Kentucky Maryland Massachusetts Minnesota Nevada New Mexico New York Oregon Rhode Island Vermont Washington All Other StatesObamaCare Mandate; those who choose not to purchase affordablehealth.info will have to pay a tax "penalty" unless they qualify for an exemption. managed?

HL: Minimal management, with someone coming to check basic maintenance every three to six months.

We are looking into adopting a model that uses a chip board attached to the machine, that would send data by SMS to tell us how much power it is generating and whether something has failed.

This also would allow for a text and pay method, where customers use Kenya’s M-Pesa mobile money service to send a text message to the micro power station in their village.

The turbines then provide energy based on how much money is paid in. This may sound far-fetched in rural Africa, but a biogas company in our region is already using these boxes.

The technology itself would only cost a further 5 dollars, and whilst this kind of thing cannot be manufactured locally, it opens up a number of interesting fee-for-service and deferred payment models for our commercial installations.

JO: I’ve noticed you use the term ‘equivalent function’ what does it mean?

HL: A design term used to define the functional need of the end user. No-one cares about electricity, they care about function.

So, for instance, if a user needs lighting at night and is already paying a $30 per month for their kerosene lamps, we need to be able to provide the equivalent (or better) function at the same or lower-cost in order for the change to make sense for them. It’s the benchmark we start from in our design process.

JO: What strategies are you using to maximise outreach?

HL: We haven’t started advertising yet and have relied on word of mouth up to date. Currently, we are in the position where we have the more demand than we can cope with.

Once we secure our capacity, there are potential avenues of outreach, i.e. local ambassadors that go to rural communities talking about this technology and so forth. This is still very much to be explored.

JO: Maybe a silly question but does the windmill only work when there is wind?

HL: The windmill has to be set up in areas with wind, but its small size and low-cost characteristics opens up locations that would not traditionally be considered suitable for wind power – like between tall buildings, or in a wind funnel in a small valley.

This technology is 2-3 times cheaper to produce than solar, so it still makes sense to use our wind turbines in an area with full sun resource and only half wind resource.

And of course beyond simply providing energy, each turbine develops local manufacturing skills and promotes the local economy, adding social value to the venture.

JO: What is the lifecycle of one windmill?

HL: Still working on metrics for this, but we have had a trial windmill that lasted for over 6 months without any maintenance.

We were very conscious to integrate maintenance issues into the design, so that the fail points in the system are designed to be the components that are easiest to replace.

The more complicated components are extremely rugged and based on mature technologies that were developed in the auto industry long before we even began with our project.

For more information go to access:energy”s website: http://access-collective.com/