This piece by Annelise Gill-Wiehl and Daniel Kammen is featured in The Beam #11 – Power in People. Subscribe now to read more on the subject.
“Each time [the local workers] visit, we gain strength from that. To refill [LPG cylinders]. To continue on,” says Bibi Matunda (or Grandma Fruit as the old woman is kindly nicknamed) at a focus group with a few other families in the Community Technology Worker Pilot Program. In Tanzania, where our research is based, 96% of the population  relies on “unclean” fuels, and the effects of biomass burning and indoor air pollution contributes to 20,000 deaths . Liquified Petroleum Gas (LPG) is one of the truly clean cooking fuels based on emission criteria set by the World Health Organization (WHO). Although LPG is a fossil fuel, there is a net climate benefit to a large-scale switch to LPG for household fuel due to increased efficiency, as well as the benefit of transitioning away from the methane emissions caused by wood burning. Despite a wave of many African countries setting goals for increased or exclusive LPG use, LPG programs face common barriers to adoption of the clean fuel, which include a lack of education/need for household training, household safety concerns and the prohibitive cost.
We looked for analogies in other sustainable development fields that overcame barriers in behavior change and the need for community transitions. Specifically, we turned to the literature on Community Health Workers – local individuals who link their underserved communities to health systems.
Despite the existence of established and proven interventions to improve community health, local health systems are too fragmented to scale up these interventions. This weak infrastructure, combined with the shortage of over 4 million health care professionals and the high cost of training doctors, presented a need for a local worker to fill this health care void. A Community Health Worker (CHW) was implemented at the village level to provide individual care that was effective, culturally appropriate, and economical. The WHO defines CHWs as “members of the communities where they work, should be selected by the communities, should be answerable to the communities for their activities, should be supported by the health system, but not necessarily a part of the organization, and have shorter training than professional workers” . The public health community has overwhelmingly demonstrated that CHWs can increase community development and access to health services. We therefore decided to investigate whether a similar model – a Community Technology Worker (CTW) – could be introduced to aid in the adoption of clean stoves.
This work was piloted in Shirati, Tanzania, a town of ~50,000 on the edge of Lake Victoria, near the Kenyan border. Kubwana and Michire are two sub-villages in Shirati. Kubwana is a larger, electrified trading area with the regional hospital, small shops, and unofficial vendors selling vegetables, fruit, and charcoal. Michire is closer to the lake and has a smaller trading post without grid electrification – some shops have a single solar panel. A local NGO, ReachShirati, helped identify trusted community members, Mary from Michire and Nayome from Kubwana, to each start with 15 households. The local LPG company, Mihan Gas, was brought in to provide a day long safety training to supplement the manuals and explanations we provided on the LPG stove. The women then taught the families how to use the gas stove and provided educational and safety pamphlets in the native language that were supplemented with pictorial content for those who cannot read. They promised to always be available for questions or concerns. Mary and Nayome would check-in weekly with the households to conduct a short survey to gauge fuel use, but more importantly, they continue to provide support and encouragement to the families. After a year of surveys and rounds of interviews, the results show that roughly 80% of families report sustained, regular refilling of LPG cylinders. This is a relatively high rate of adoption compared to other LPG and improved biomass cookstove interventions.
A CTW does not remove all barriers to gas adoption. Economic difficulties and cooking materials stand in the way of full adoption. However, these results do suggest that a CTW does mitigate many of the obstacles through education and maintenance support.
To further bolster the effectiveness of the CTW model and encourage families to refill their LPG cylinder, we are continuing to conceptualize with other disciplines, specifically economics and microfinance. The research is attempting to expand and offer households an opportunity to opt into a savings bank option to promote accountability and a formal financial mechanism.
Our work is not the only clean cooking initiative to reach across disciplines and innovate to reach the world’s poor. There are many prominent ventures on the horizon in clean cooking, such as pay-as-you-cook SmartGas from Envirofit and Inyeryeri’s firewood pellet stove – one of the few biomass stoves to meet the Tier 4 Emission Criteria set by the WHO. These enterprises are combining disciplines with IT & computer science, mechanical engineering, and economics. This cross-disciplinary work is crucial to attack the most pressing environmental and global health issues. As we face a warming climate and growing health implications from the burning of biomass, it is all the more important for the sustainable development community to work together and lean on new ideas and identify proven bright spots, even those from different disciplines. We cannot look for solutions in silos; rather, we must reach out across disciplines and topics to achieve a sustainable future.
We must not forget to incorporate the most important aspect from both CHWs and CTWs – the human contact of local outreach. In theory, reach and scale are easily and quickly attainable even without physical visiting. However, even companies like Envirofit, who pursue large-scale cookstove deployment mostly through IT-based communication, admit that “while investing in training resources increases costs, it also increases adoption”.
The advantage of this model for cooking over an IT-based solution (i.e. text message education or reminders) is the flexibility and resilience inherent to a human-led initiative. Human workers can respond and adapt to the specific issues of the household and provide helpful advice; an automated text message is easily ignored and cannot adapt to specific circumstances. Households are more likely to adopt improved stoves if they have had prior exposure to a trusted individual or organization promoting the product. Additionally, these local trainers could be utilized to solve other community problems, such as water and sanitation technology or mini-grids. An interdisciplinary solution can be employed to solve a multitude of disciplinary problems.
The focus group reiterated the importance of community between the CTW and the households. For example, one woman said, “we have become friends, we greet each other, you find out what the problem is and you help. If there is a problem, we find a solution.” As the women of Shirati support each other within this program, so should the fields in sustainable development. Beyond an expanded study that couples this model with a savings bank as mentioned above, this work could become a strong private-public partnership. Mirroring the CHWs in Tanzania, LPG companies could coordinate their village LPG dealers with local governments to adopt this model, empower their communities from within, and work towards clean fuel adoption for decades to come. Community-based outreach and interdisciplinary solutions are invaluable in the effort to provide access and ensure adoption of clean energy for cooking and beyond.
 Clean Cooking Alliance, “Tanzania,” 2019. [Online]. Available: https://www.cleancookingalliance.org/country-profiles/41-tanzania.html. [Accessed: 30-Oct-2019].
 G. Health, “Community and Formal Health System Support for Enhanced Community Health Worker Performance A U.S. Government Evidence Summit FINAL REPORT Content,” 2012.
 Envirofit, “COOKING IN ONE MILLION KITCHENS: Lessons Learned in Scaling a Clean Cookstove Business,” 2015.
In a comment article published in the Nature last month, scientists argue that an “energy future in which both people and rivers thrive” is possible with better planning.
The hydropower development projects now underway threaten the world’s last free-flowing rivers, posing severe threats to local human communities and the species that call rivers home. A recent study found that just one-third of the world’s 242 largest rivers remain free-flowing.
The benefits of better planning to meet increasing energy demands could be huge: A report released by WWF and The Nature Conservancy ahead of the World Hydropower Congress, held in Paris last month, finds that accelerating the deployment of non-hydropower renewable energy could prevent the fragmentation of nearly 165,000 kilometers (more than 102,500 miles) of river channels.
In a comment article published in the Nature last month, scientists argue that an “energy future in which both people and rivers thrive” is possible with better planning.
For decades, hydropower dams have been a go-to solution for electrifying the developing world. There are more than 60,000 large dams around the globe, and as the demand for clean energy in Africa, South America, and Southeast Asia continues to grow, hundreds more are currently in the planning stages.
Hydroelectric dams have their advantages, such as providing a steady supply of baseload electricity that can be adjusted quickly to meet fluctuating demand and zero hazardous wastes or byproducts to dispose of. But according to the authors of the Nature article, by Rafael J. P. Schmitt at Stanford University, Noah Kittner, Matthias Kondolf, and Daniel M Kammen of the University of California, at Berkeley “Hydropower needs to be viewed as part of a broader strategy for clean energy, in which the costs and benefits of different sources should be assessed and weighed against each other.”
The hydropower development projects now underway threaten the world’s last free-flowing rivers, posing severe threats to local human communities and the species that call rivers home. The Cambodian government, for instance, is proposing to build the 11,000-gigawatt-hour Sambor dam on the Mekong River, which “would prevent fish from migrating, threatening fisheries worth billions of dollars. It would further cut the supply of sediment to the Mekong Delta, where some of the region’s most fertile farmland is at risk of sinking below sea level by the end of the century,” according to Schmitt and colleagues. “And the dam would do little to bring electricity or jobs to local villagers: much of its hydropower would be exported to big cities in neighbouring nations, far from the rivers that will be affected.”
A recent study found that just one-third of the world’s 242 largest rivers remain free-flowing, mostly in remote regions of the Amazon Basin, the Arctic, and the Congo Basin.
As Schmitt and co-authors note in the Nature article, however, hydropower is just one of many clean energy options available today, and technologies like solar panels or wind turbines can produce similar amounts of electricity as large hydroelectric dams at roughly the same cost.
“[S]preading a variety of renewable energy sources strategically across river basins could produce power reliably and cheaply while protecting these crucial rivers and their local communities,” the researchers write. “Solar, wind, microhydro and energy-storage technologies have caught up with large hydropower in price and effectiveness. Hundreds of small generators woven into a ‘smart grid’ (which automatically responds to changes in supply and demand) can outcompete a big dam.”
Schmitt and team say that, in order to keep the world’s remaining free-flowing rivers unobstructed while increasing access to electricity in developing nations at the same time, strategies for deploying renewable energy technologies and expanding hydropower projects must be made at the basin-wide or regional level and strike the right balance between impacts and benefits of all available clean electricity generation methods. “On the major tributaries of the lower Mekong, for example, dams have been built ad hoc. Existing ones exploit only 50% of the tributaries’ potential hydropower yet prevent 90% of their sand load from reaching the delta,” the researchers report. “There was a better alternative: placing more small dams higher up the rivers could have released 70% of the power while trapping only 20% of the sand.”
Site selection for solar and wind farms must be just as strategic as for new dams. “Impacts of these projects on the landscape need to be considered, too. Solar and wind farms might be built on patches of land that have low conservation value, such as along roads, or even floating on hydropower reservoirs,” Schmitt and co-authors suggest. “Solar panels and small wind turbines can be put on or near buildings to minimize infrastructure and reduce energy losses in transmission.”
The scientists recommend that organizations and governments who manage river basins apply a “holistic perspective” to energy planning that takes into account all non-hydropower renewable energy options, energy efficiency measures, energy demand management, and the risks posed by global climate change — as decreasing river flows in a more drought-prone, warmer world could severely impact the output of hydroelectric dams.
But in order to properly evaluate all of the trade-offs when designing a renewable energy strategy, we need to know much more about river ecosystems and the human communities that depend on them: “Researchers need to fill data gaps across whole river basins, from fish migration and sediment transport to community empowerment and impacts on food systems,” Schmitt and co-authors write. “The costs of lost ecosystem services over the life cycle of energy projects must be included in cost–benefit analyses. Such research is cheap compared with the costs of building dams and mitigating environmental impacts.”
The benefits of better planning to meet increasing energy demands could be huge: A report released by WWF and The Nature Conservancy ahead of the World Hydropower Congress, held in Paris last month, finds that accelerating the deployment of non-hydropower renewable energy could prevent the fragmentation of nearly 165,000 kilometers (more than 102,500 miles) of river channels.
“We can not only envision a future where electricity systems are accessible, affordable and powering economies with a mix of renewable energy, we can now build that future,” Jeff Opperman, a freshwater scientist with WWF and lead author of the report, said in a statement.
“If we do not rapidly seize the opportunity to accelerate the renewable revolution, unnecessary, high-impact hydropower dams could still be built on iconic rivers such as the Mekong, Irrawaddy, and Amazon — and dozens or hundreds of others around the world. It would be a great tragedy if the full social and environmental benefits of the renewable revolution arrived just a few years too late to safeguard the world’s great rivers and all the diverse benefits they provide to people and nature.”
• Grill et al. (2019). Mapping the world’s free-flowing rivers. Nature. doi:10.1038/s41586-019-1111-9
• Opperman, J., J. Hartmann, M. Lambrides, J.P. Carvallo, E. Chapin, S. Baruch-Mordo, B. Eyler, M. Goichot, J. Harou, J. Hepp, D. Kammen, J. Kiesecker, A. Newsock, R. Schmitt, M. Thieme, A. Wang, and C. Weber. (2019). Connected and flowing: a renewable future for rivers, climate and people. WWF and The Nature Conservancy, Washington, DC.
• Schmitt, R. J., Kittner, N., Kondolf, G. M., & Kammen, D. M. (2019). Deploy diverse renewables to save tropical rivers. Nature569, 330-332. doi:10.1038/d41586-019-01498-8
Keywords: off-grid energy; village power; decentralized energy, energy services, energy innovation.
Two critically important and interlinked challenges face the global community in the 21st century: the persistence of widespread energy poverty and the resulting lost economic opportunity; and intensifying human-driven climate disruption. These crises are inexorably linked through the energy technology systems that have so far provided the vast majority of our energy: biomass and fossil fuels. Both the energy service crisis and the climate crisis have become increasingly serious over the past decades, even though we have seen greater clarity over the individual and social costs that each has brought to humanity.
The Sustainable Energy Imperative:
The correlation between access to electricity and a wide range of social goods is overwhelming. However, access to improved energy services alone does not provide a surefire pathway to economic opportunity and an improved quality of life. In Figure 2 we show the correlations that exist between electricity access across nations and a variety of measures of quality of life, such as the Human Development Index (a measure of well-being based in equal thirds on gross national income, life expectancy, and educational attainment). Other indicators studied include gender equality in educational opportunity, and the percentage of students who reach educational milestones. All of these indices improve significantly and roughly linearly with access to electricity. At the same time, the percentage of people below the poverty line, and childhood mortality, both decline with increasing energy access1.
Figure 1: A village micro-grid energy and telecommunications system in the Crocker Highlands of Sabah, Malaysian Borneo. The system serves a community of two hundred, and provides household energy services, telecoms and satellite (dish shown), water pumping for fish ponds (seen at center) and for refrigeration. The supply includes micro-hydro and solar generation (one small panel shown here, others are distributed on building rooftops). Photo credit: Daniel M. Kammen.
Figure 2: The Human Development Index (HDI) and various additional metrics of quality of life plotted against the percentage of the population with electricity access. Each data point is country level data a specific point in time. For additional data, see Alston, Gershenson, and Kammen, 20151.
Today the gap between global population and those with electricity access stands at roughly 1.3 billion, with energy services for the unelectrified coming largely from kerosene and traditional biomass, including dung and agricultural residues. This ‘access gap’ has persisted as grid expansion programmes and population have grown.
Grid expansion has roughly kept pace with the increase in the global population. About 1.4 billion people in 2013 are completely off-grid, and many ostensibly connected people in the developing world experience significant outages that range from 20-200+ days a year. The majority of these off-grid residents are in rural and underserved peri-urban areas. Current forecasts are that this number will remain roughly unchanged until 2030, which would relegate a significant portion of the population and the economies of many of the neediest countries on earth to fragile, underproductive lives with less options than they could otherwise have. Traditional grid extension will be slowest to reach these communities. Unless the advances in both energy and information systems that have occurred over the past decade are more widely adopted, there will be little if any chance to alter this trend.
Advances in off-grid systems
Recently we have seen an emergence of off-grid electricity systems that do not require the same supporting networks as the traditional forms of centralized power generation. These technological innovations are as much based on information systems as they are directly about energy technology. While traditional electricity grids can gradually pay off (amortize) the costs of expensive generation, transmission and distribution capital equipment across many customers and across many decades, a new business model is needed to rapidly bring energy services to the rural and urban poor. Mini-grids and products for individual user end-use such as solar home systems have benefitted from dramatic price reductions and performance advances in solid state electronics, cellular communications technologies, electronic banking, and in the dramatic decrease in solar energy costs2. This mix of technological and market innovation has contributed to a vibrant new energy services sector that in many nations has outpaced traditional grid expansion.
The comparison between the utility model of central-station energy systems and this new wave of distributed energy providers is instructive. Traditional dynamo generators and arc lighting perform best at large scale, and they became the mainstay of large-scale electric utilities. The classic utility model of a one-way flow of energy from power plant to consumers is now rapidly changing. The combination of low-cost solar, micro-hydro, and other generation technologies coupled with the electronics needed to manage small-scale power and to communicate to control devices and to remote billing systems has changed village energy. High-performance, low-cost photovoltaic generation, paired with advanced batteries and controllers, provide scalable systems across much larger power ranges than central generation, from megawatts down to fractions of a watt3.
The rapid and continuing improvements in end-use efficiency for solid state lighting, direct current televisions, refrigeration, fans, and information and communication technology (ICT, as seen in Figure 1) have resulted in a 'super-efficiency trend'. This progress has enabled decentralized power and appliance systems to compete with conventional equipment for basic household needs. These rapid technological advances in supporting clean energy both on- and off-grid are furthermore predicted to continue. This process has been particularly important at the individual device and household (solar home system) level, and for the emerging world of village mini-grids3.
Diverse Technology Options to Provide Energy Services for the Unelectrified:
With these technological cornerstones, aid organizations, governments, academia, and the private sector are developing and supporting a wide range of approaches to serve the needs of the poor, including pico-lighting devices (often very small 1 – 2 watt solar panels charging lithium-ion batteries which in turn power low-cost/high efficiency light emitting diode lights), solar home systems (SHS), and community-scale micro- and mini-grids. Decentralized systems are clearly not complete substitutes for a reliable grid connection, but they represent an important level of access until a reliable grid is available and feasible. They provide an important platform from which to develop more distributed energy services. By overcoming access barriers often through market-based structures, these systems provide entirely new ways to bring energy services to the poor and formerly un-connected people.
Meeting peoples’ basic lighting and communication needs is an important first step on the 'modern electricity service ladder' 4. Eliminating kerosene lighting from a household improves household health and safety while providing significantly higher quality and quantities of light. Fuel based lighting is a $20 billion industry in Africa alone, and tremendous opportunities exist to both reduce energy costs for the poor, and to improve the quality of service. Charging a rural or village cell phone can cost $5 – 10/kWh at a pay-for-service charging station, but less than $0.50 cents/kWh via an off-grid product or on a mini-grid.
This investment frees income and also tends to lead to higher rates of utilization for mobile phones and other small devices. Overall, the first few watts of power mediated through efficient end-uses lead to benefits in household health, education, and poverty reduction. Beyond basic needs there can be a wide range of important and highly-valued services from decentralized power (e.g., television, refrigeration, fans, heating, ventilation and air-conditioning, motor-driven applications) depending on the power level and its quality along with demand-side efficiency.
Experience with the 'off-grid' poor confirms the exceptional value derived from the first increment of energy service—equivalent to 0.2-1 Wh/day for mobile phone charging or the first 100 lumen-hours of light. Given the cost and service level that fuel-based lighting and fee-based mobile phone charging provide as a baseline, simply shifting this expenditure to a range of modern energy technology solutions could provide a much better service, or significant cost savings over the lifetime of a lighting product (typically 3-5 years).
Mirroring the early development of electric utilities, improvements in underlying technology systems for decentralized power are also being combined with new business models, institutional and regulatory support, and integrated information technology systems5, 6. Historically, the non-technical barriers to adoption have been impediments to widespread adoption of off-grid electricity, and in some cases they still are. A lack of appropriate investment capital also hampers the establishment and expansion of private sector initiatives. Furthermore, complex and often perverse policy environments impair entry for clean technologies and entrench incumbent systems. Subsidies for liquid lighting fuels can reduce the incentive to adopt electric lighting. In addition, the prevalence of imperfect or inaccurate information about quality can lead to market spoiling4 and is also manifested by a lack of consumer understanding and awareness of alternatives to incumbent lighting technology.
Testing laboratories that rate the quality of the lighting products and disseminate the results are an invaluable step in increasing the quality and competitiveness of new entrants into the off-grid and mini-grid energy services space. The Lighting Global (https://www.lightingglobal.org) programme5 is one example of an effort that began as an industry watchdog, but has now become an important platform that provides market insights, steers quality assurance frameworks for modern, off-grid lighting devices and systems, and promotes sustainability through a partnership with industry.
An Action Agenda for Energy Access:
The diversity of new energy service products available, and the rapidly increasing demand for information and communication services, water, health and entertainment in villages worldwide has built a very large demand for reliable and low-cost energy7. Combining this demand with the drive for clean energy brings two important objectives that were for many years seen as in direct competition with alignment around the suite of new clean energy products that can power village energy services.
To enable and expand this process, a range of design principles emerge that can form a roadmap to clean energy economies:
Establish clear goals at the local level: Universal energy access is the global goal by 20307, but establishing more near-term goals that embody meaningful steps from the present situation will show how what is possible and at what level of effort. Cities and villages have begun with audits of energy services, costs, and environmental impacts. A number of tools are often cited as excellent starting points, including the climate footprint assessment tools like http://coolclimate.berkeley.edu, and the HOMER software package (http://www.homerenergy.com) used by many groups to design both local mini-grids and to plan and cost out off-grid energy options
Empower villages as both designers and as consumers of localized power: Village solutions necessarily vary greatly, but clean energy resource assessments, evaluation of the needed infrastructure investment, and, most often neglected but most important, the social structures around which sufficient training exists to make the village energy system a success. In a pilot in rural Nicaragua, once the assessment was complete8 movement from evaluation to implementation quickly became a goal of both the community and a local commercial plant.
Make equity a central design consideration: Community energy solutions have the potential to liberate women entrepreneurs and disadvantaged ethnic minorities by tailoring user-materials and energy plans to meet the cultural and linguistic needs of these communities. National programmes often ignore business specialties, culturally appropriate cooking and other home energy needs. Thinking explicitly about this is both good business and makes the solutions much more likely to be adopted.
References & Further Reading:
Alstone, Peter, Gershenson, Dimitry and Daniel K. Kammen (2015) Decentralized energy systems for clean electricity access, , , 305 – 314.
Alstone, Peter, Gershenson, Dimitry and Daniel K. Kammen (2015) Decentralized energy systems for clean electricity access, Nature Climate Change, 5, 305 – 314.
Zheng, Cheng and Kammen, Daniel (2014) An Innovation-Focused Roadmap for a Sustainable Global Photovoltaic Industry, Energy Policy, 67, 159–169.
Casillas, C. and Kammen, D. M. (2010) The energy-poverty-climate nexus, Science, 330, 1182
Azevedo, I. L., Morgan, M. G. & Morgan, F. (2009) The transition to solid-state lighting. Proceedings of the IEEE97, 481-510 (2009).
Mileva, A., Nelson, J. H., Johnston, J., and Kammen, D. M. (2013) SunShot Solar Power Reduces Costs and Uncertainty in Future Low-Carbon Electricity Systems, Environmental Science & Technology, 47 (16), 9053 – 9060.
Sovacool, B. K. The political economy of energy poverty: A review of key challenges. Energy for Sustainable Development16, 272-282 (2012).
SE4ALL. (2013) Global Tracking Framework (United Nations Sustainable Energy For All, New York, NY).
While the boons of electricity are obvious to anyone who has watched a 49ers game on a 70-inch ultra HDTV or whipped up a frozen margarita in a blender, it also has its downsides—most of them environmental. Coal and natural gas power plants belch planet-warming CO2 into the atmosphere, while nuclear plants produce highly lethal radwaste.
Still, access to electrical power is a basic social-equity issue. About 1.5 billion of the planet’s 7 billion people lack electricity, and their lives are impoverished, physically and culturally, as a result. Further, a deficiency of electricity generates environmental problems of its own. If people lack electricity to cook their food or warm their homes, they’ll substitute wood or charcoal, resulting in deforestation and yes, more carbon spewing into the atmosphere.
But a paper by UC Berkeley researchers Peter Alstone,Dimitry Gershenson and Daniel Kammen indicates that a major change in the way power is produced and consumed is in the offing—one that could electrify the developing world (literally and figuratively) while promising reduced carbon emissions.
The study, published in the journal Nature Climate Change, identifies the present moment as a tipping point, one in which decentralized transmission networks, cheap photovoltaics, sophisticated low-energy appliances, mobile phones and “virtual” financial services are all merging to create a kind of alt-grid that will, as one addicted to clichés might say, shift the energy paradigm.
Here’s what’s happening: Solar panels and batteries have gotten both better and cheaper, to the point that the developing world’s mini-grids (for communities) and micro-grids (villages or individual homes) can afford them. Such systems are easier and cheaper to set up than legacy systems dependent on big, centralized power plants and tower-supported transmission lines festooned around the countryside. Ultra-efficient appliances—everything from TVs to refrigerators—also are now widely available, as is LED lighting (which uses minimal power).
“What’s making this new system possible is the merging of information and energy technologies, of aggressive innovation in both the power production and smart phone worlds,” says Kammen, a professor at the Goldman School of Public Policy and the director of UC’s Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory.
Kenya was once an energy black hole. Today Masaai moran (warriors) herd their livestock while simultaneously checking cattle prices in Mombasa on their cell phones, which they holster in beaded pouches worn around their necks.
The abrupt and massive spread of cell phone technology has encouraged virtual banking systems that allow small-scale energy producers and their customers to do business from anywhere, and on a pro-rata basis. Customers are able to buy power in exceedingly small increments—say, enough to recharge their cell phones and power an LED light or two, or a tiny refrigerator and a high-efficiency hot plate. That’s a big deal in the developing world, where even a few such amenities make a gigantic difference in the quality of life—and where cash always is in short supply. It allows customers in rural Africa and Asia to analogously do with energy what they do when they visit a village store: buy a single stick of gum or a matchbook.
Indeed, Kammen says, trusted e-banking systems are essential for the support of the mini-grid network, and he notes that the developing world has led in creating apps for such services.
He cites Kenya as an especially shining example. Fifteen years ago, the country was a communications black hole. Hard-line telephony was the rule, and spotty at best. Outside Nairobi and Mombasa, people made do with CB radios or word of mouth. Then mobile technology arrived, and within a few years everyone was connected. Today, when visiting the country’s wildlife reserves, you’ll see Masaai moran (warriors) herding their livestock while simultaneously checking cattle prices in Mombasa on their cell phones, which they holster in beaded pouches worn around their necks.
“In the 1990s I helped start up Mpala Research Center in Laikipia [in northern Kenya],” recalls Kammen. “We had to wait for a satellite to pass overhead so we could make our 35-second phone calls. Now researchers are receiving streaming data on individual lions and African wild dogs that they’re tracking.”
In 2007, a proprietary mobile system known as M-Pesa was launched in Kenya. Originally promoted as an easy way to post payments for microloans, it was soon used by working urbanites as a means of sending money to relatives back on the rural shamba. M-Pesa is now Kenya’s preeminent banking system. As of late 2013, 19 million of the country’s 44 million people were signed up, with 25 percent of the national economy flowing through M-Pesa’s virtual conduits. In terms of energy development, that means small-scale power providers can receive payment for specific services from customers seamlessly, bypassing everything from poor infrastructure (people don’t have to walk miles over cattle trails to pay their bills) to government and corporate corruption.
“And we’re seeing other IT applications all around the developing world,” Kammen says. “In Bangladesh, for example, phones are being used to test battery [arrays]. Keeping battery systems fully functional is critical for mini-grids, and it’s a big problem in Bangladesh, where a third of the country floods each year. Mini-grids don’t have maintenance teams regularly checking the systems, but you can upload data on cell phones when there’s a specific problem, and the provider can deal with it.”
“We’re moving from an era that has remained under-innovated for decades—the system where you pay a big utility for your energy—to decentralized systems…. It’s essentially the democratization of energy.”
Decentralized electrification also reduces the causes of deforestation. When people have electricity, the rate of charcoal and wood burning typically decreases dramatically, Kammen observes.
And decentralized energy isn’t just an accelerating trend in the developing world. In America, solar panels are sprouting on suburban homes like chanterelle mushrooms in Mendocino after a winter rain; cell phones are ubiquitous. The United States, in short, is experiencing its own decentralized energy revolution.
“I have solar panels on my roof, and I can use my phone to track how much power each one is producing,” Kammen says. “I can determine which ones are dirty and may need a cleaning to improve performance. I can see how green my energy consumption is at any moment.”
That points to a shift in power (political, not electrical) from the energy producer to the consumer. In fact, Kammen contends that the “Big Grid” of the existing utilities must adapt, melding with the growing mini- and micro-grids, to thrive.
“We’re moving from an era that has remained under-innovated for decades—the system where you pay a big utility for your energy—to decentralized systems that have a lot of networked components and consumer input, all driven by powerful IT,” Kammen says. “It’s essentially the democratization of energy.”
But to really accelerate the trend, Kammen says, a big dog must emerge from the pack of alt-energy advocates.
“We’re working with a number of start-ups that are wrestling with the best way to put this all together,” Kammen says. “Nobody has hit on the right approach yet, but I anticipate somebody will do a Facebook kind of breakout sooner or later, come up with an off-grid version of Tesla. Our paper has been getting a lot of response in the week since its publication, in part because it demonstrates just how negative the impacts of poor energy access are. We show how it stymies educational opportunities and exacerbates gender inequality. It accelerates deforestation and can increase carbon emissions. But we also identify a goal: providing electricity to the 1.5 billion people who don’t have it by 2030. And with the systems we discuss, we think that’s achievable.”
November 9, 2020: Canada has expressed interest in a new, smaller type of nuclear reactor that proponents say will be critical to help the country reach its target of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
But there is debate among researchers, advocates and other experts on whether these new reactors are necessary to reach net-zero — or whether it's better accomplished by focusing efforts elsewhere.
Daniel Kammen, a professor of energy at the University of California, Berkeley, cautions that any stance on the role small modular reactors will play in Canada's energy future depends on research and data that could still be years away.
"We have a data set, currently, of zero," he told What on Earth.
"You can forecast what they might be based on technical assessments ... but it's based on no real data. It's based just on what we hope will come out of different plans."
Small modular reactors, or SMRs for short, are smaller than a conventional nuclear power plant and can be manufactured in a factory before being transported and assembled elsewhere — something proponents say will lower costs.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the UN organization for nuclear cooperation, considers an SMR to be "small" if it generates under 300 megawatts of electricity, compared to traditional nuclear reactors that typically generate about 800 megawatts, or about enough to power about 600,000 homes at once (assuming that 1 megawatt can power about 750 homes).
The federal government called it the "next wave of innovation" in nuclear energy technology and an "important technology opportunity for Canada."
In October, the federal government announced it was investing $20 million into Terrestrial Energy to help the Oakville, Ont., company develop its design of a small modular reactor.
Last December, Ontario Premier Doug Ford, New Brunswick Premier Blaine Higgs and Saskatchewan Premier Scott Moe released a joint statement committing to developing SMRs in Canada. Alberta joined that agreement in August. While the Canadian Nuclear Safety Commission is currently conducting pre-licensing reviews on several designs, forecasts suggest it could be years, perhaps 2030, before SMRs would be operating in Canada.
According to the Canadian Nuclear Association's SMR roadmap, the small reactors would help replace energy capacity lost by closing coal plants, help power off-grid projects like mines and oilsands sites, and replace diesel fuel in remote communities.
"We have not seen a model where we can get to net-zero emissions by 2050 without nuclear," Natural Resources Minister Seamus O'Regan told The House in September.
"This is a zero-emission energy source."
Nuclear energy is actually considered a low-emission — not zero-emission — energy source by the International Energy Agency (IEA), Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and others.
While the nuclear fission that takes place inside a reactor doesn't emit carbon, greenhouse gas emissions result from the surrounding processes and operations: mining the uranium, building the reactor and its eventual decommission.
"When you look at the entire fuel cycle and you broaden the lens across it, you start to capture a whole host of emissions that are often excluded," said Benjamin Sovacool, director of the energy group at the University of Sussex, and a lead author for the IPCC on how to mitigate climate change between now and 2050.
Sovacool said that renewables like solar and wind provide a bigger bang for the buck to lower emissions, and are widely available now, unlike SMRs.
"Nuclear power is like fighting world hunger with caviar, it's like using the most expensive option when there are far more plentiful and nutritious options available when you account for the costs," he told What on Earth.
John Gorman, however, is convinced nuclear power is the way forward — and that SMRs are a crucial part of the plan.
He's the president and CEO of the Canadian Nuclear Association — but before that, he was head of the Canadian Solar Industries Association.
"When I moved over from the renewable side, I had to do a lot of homework to really look into the technology, its track record, the way that it deals with some of the issues that are of most concern to people," he told Lynch.
"I've come to the realization after all of that that really there is no way to net zero without nuclear. And secondly, it just is a really safe, remarkable technology."
Gorman pointed to decades of North American experience working with nuclear energy, and affirmed the importance of going through the regulatory process throughout development to ensure SMRs are as safe and efficient as possible.
He said the seven-to-10-year estimates for SMRs to become a reality in Canada are "a blink of an eye in terms of energy planning," and that they will become "a real, necessary tool" for Canada's net-zero targets.
Kammen isn't convinced that SMRs have quite yet earned a green light.
"You ... have to worry about the end of life and the risk issues that are not a feature of wind or solar," he said.,
"A bad batch of solar panels is actually a learning event, whereas a bad batch of components for a nuclear plant can be catastrophic."
Kerry Blaise, staff lawyer at the Canadian Environmental Law Association, said SMRs and nuclear energy present "a dangerous distraction from real climate action."
Her stance is echoed by more than 25 environment and citizens' groups, including Greenpeace, the Sierra Club and Equiterre, which released a statement in October.
Blaise said the modular nature of SMRs means that fuel for the reactors — and, eventually, the radioactive waste they produce — will have to be transported more frequently, especially if they are deployed in remote locations like mines and Indigenous communities.
She added that "the economics don't add up" regarding arguments that nuclear energy should be "part of the mix" along with renewable energy.
"The cost of renewables continues to go down due to incremental manufacturing and installation improvements, while nuclear, despite having had half a century of industrial experience, continues to have costs that are rising," she said.
Nuclear power has been declining worldwide for decades, and cost has been one challenge, according to a 2019 report from the IEA, which said "new projects have been plagued by cost overruns and delays."
Kammen said he's seen a large amount of private sector investment in SMRs, which could help accelerate development to make it competitive alongside renewables like solar and wind.
But it will be some time, he said, before anyone can guess what "mix of technologies" will be best.
"These new nuclear plants need to perform at a cost level that we have not seen. They need to perform at a reliability level we haven't seen.... And then finally, the most critically, these plants have to be demonstrated to be operated safely during their lifetime and for the fuel management at the end of life cycle," he said.
"That's a big list of ifs. So I'm rooting for nuclear, but I think that list of challenges is exceedingly long."
For the original CBC source: click here.
Good Grids Make Good Neighbors: Peace and Sustainability in the Post Paris World
Location: William J. Perry Conference Room, Encina Hall, 2nd Floor, Stanford University, 616 Serra St, Stanford, CA 94305
3:30 - 5:00 PM, Monday, February 26, 2018
Abstract: Clean energy provides a number of benefits at scales from household to village to city and region. An unrealized and under-appreciated opportunity is to transition conflict regions from external fuel supply chains to local, clean and unpolluting energy. The benefits of this transition include local energy security to shared benefits from sustaining local generation capacity, which we term 'peace through grids'.
Speaker bio: Daniel M. Kammen is a Professor of Energy at the University of California, Berkeley, with parallel appointments in the Energy and Resources Group where he serves as Chair, the Goldman School of Public Policy where he directs the Center for Environmental Policy, and the department of Nuclear Engineering. Kammen is the founding director of the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory (RAEL; http://rael.berkeley.edu), and was Director of the Transportation Sustainability Research Center from 2007 - 2015.
He was appointed by then Secretary of State Hilary Clinton in April 2010 as the first energy fellow of the Environment and Climate Partnership for the Americas (ECPA) initiative. He began service as the Science Envoy for U. S. Secretary of State John Kerry in 2016, but resigned over President Trump’s policies in August 2017. He has served the State of California and US federal government in expert and advisory capacities, including time at the US Environmental Protection Agency, US Department of Energy, the Agency for International Development (USAID) and the Office of Science and Technology Policy
Dr. Kammen was educated in physics at Cornell (BA 1984) and Harvard (MA 1986; PhD 1988), and held postdoctoral positions at the California Institute of Technology and Harvard. He was an Assistant Professor and Chair of the Science, Technology and Environmental Policy Program at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University before moving to the University of California, Berkeley. Dr. Kammen has served as a contributing or coordinating lead author on various reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change since 1999. The IPCC shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize.
Kammen helped found over 10 companies, including Enphase that went public in 2012, Renewable Funding (Renew Financial) a Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) implementing company that went public in 2014. Kammen played a central role in developing the successful bid for the $500 million energy biosciences institute funded by BP.
During 2010-2011 Kammen served as the World Bank Group’s first Chief Technical Specialist for Renewable Energy and Energy Efficiency. While there, Kammen worked on the Kenya-Ethiopia “green corridor” transmission project, Morocco’s green transformation, the 10-year energy strategy for the World Bank, and on investing in household energy and gender equity. He was appointed to this newly created position in October 2010, in which he provided strategic leadership on policy, technical, and operational fronts. The aim is to enhance the operational impact of the Bank’s renewable energy and energy efficiency activities while expanding the institution’s role as an enabler of global dialogue on moving energy development to a cleaner and more sustainable pathway. Kammen’s work at the World Bank included funding electrified personal and municipal vehicles in China, and the $1.24 billion transmission project linking renewable energy assets in Kenya and Ethiopia.
He has authored or co-authored 12 books, written more than 300 peer-reviewed journal publications, and has testified more than 40 times to U.S. state and federal congressional briefings, and has provided various governments with more than 50 technical reports. For details see http://rael.berkeley.edu/publications. Dr. Kammen also served for many years on the Technical Review Board of the Global Environment Facility. He is the Specialty Chief Editor for Understanding Earth and Its Resources for Frontiers for Young Minds.
Kammen is a frequent contributor to or commentator in international news media, including Newsweek, Time, The New York Times, The Guardian, and The Financial Times. Kammen has appeared on ‘60 Minutes’ (twice), NOVA, Frontline, and hosted the six-part Discovery Channel series Ecopolis. Dr. Kammen is a Permanent Fellow of the African Academy of Sciences, a fellow of the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, and the American Physical Society. In the US, he has served on several National Academy of Sciences boards and panels.
Please join us for a presentation by several RAEL projects to Next10, and a dialog around efforts on sustainable energy that we are looking to undertake together.
F. Noel Perry
Noel Perry is a businessman, philanthropist, and the founder of Next 10, a nonpartisan, nonprofit organization that educates and empowers Californians to improve the state’s future. Prior to founding Next 10, he was managing director of Baccharis Capital Inc., a socially responsible venture capital fund that he founded in 1991. Noel is also a Peace Corps alum, having served in Yemen where he built water projects in rural villages.
Colleen Kredell is the director of research at Next 10, working with Noel to identify and manage research projects that support the Next 10 mission. She received her Master of Sustainable Development Practice at UC Berkeley where she was affiliated with the Climate Readiness Institute and ReNUWIt. Prior to Berkeley, she worked in climate and energy policy and programming in Washington, DC and at Stanford University.
About Next 10
Next 10 is focused on innovation and the intersection between the economy, the environment, and quality of life issues for all Californians. Our work is divided into a few key areas: expert-commissioned research, civic engagement tools and events, and stakeholder convenings. Our most recently published report, the ninth annual California Green Innovation Index, highlighted the growing challenge CA faces as a result of increasing transportation emissions in the state.
Among the many Next10 efforts they publish
The Green Innovation Index
California’s clean economy sector is diversifying and advancing according to new data highlighted in the 2016 California Green Innovation Index. Next 10's eighth edition of the California Green Innovation Index, for the first time, analyzes and ranks the Golden State’s economic and energy performance in comparison to the world’s 50 largest greenhouse gas (GHG) emitting nations, in addition to comparing 26 regions within California. The Index reveals new data about clean tech patents, investment levels, energy productivity levels, state GDP relative to greenhouse gas emissions, California's clean economy jobs and more. The 2015 edition of this research can be found at http://next10.org/international.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and United States President Barack Obama announced Tuesday two new initiatives mobilizing up to $1.4 billion to finance India’s commitment to universal energy access.
Minigrids are renewable energy-based electricity generators that serve a set of consumers. They make up a major part of Modi’s promise to provide electricity to all Indians by 2019. Many have asked whether minigrids could be the next big opportunity beyond the grid. And with this influx of capital, Modi is well-positioned to put that question to the test as he looks to power the more than 18,000 villages that currently lack electricity.
Because there are far less sustainable ways for India to meet its ambitious targets, part of the pathway to the global goal of universal access to electricity by 2030, the stakes are high and the world is watching.
“We believe that these remote areas which have been left out cannot be serviced with the regular grid,” Tarun Kapoor, joint secretary of India’s Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, said last week at EnergyAccessX, an event that took place in San Francisco as part of the annual Clean Energy Ministerial. He asked the audience to provide feedback on a draft national policy outlining how microgrids and minigrids can provide cost effective off-grid energy. “We will have a model of grid connected microgrids,” he said.
As the policy acknowledges, while the world has seen tremendous growth of solar home systems in the developing world, barriers continue to stall the expansion of minigrids.
“When you look at the actual experience with minigrids, it’s not just not as good as the potential, but many have massively underachieved,” said Dan Kammen, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley and a U.S. Science Envoy.
Minigrids are a more obvious fit for areas where the concentration of homes and businesses is too far to connect to the existing grid but large enough to provide economies of scale. So it is harder for the minigrid sector to take off in countries with less population density, let alone less regulatory support, than India. Technological improvements and cost reductions have helped minigrids overcome some of the barriers they once faced, but development banks and aid donors play a key role in catalyzing the growth of the minigrid industry.
Scattered across the tables at EnergyAccessX were booklets from Sierra Club and Oil Change International giving international public finance a big red F for distributed clean energy access. The recommendations for multilateral development banks included increasing funding for off-grid and minigrid clean energy projects and moving beyond pilot projects to incorporate off-grid and minigrid lending into core energy portfolios.
Minigrids raise challenges that more traditional development donor investment practices are not always well adapted to confront, said Justin Guay, climate program officer at the David and Lucille Packard Foundation in San Francisco. This is due in part to a disconnect between the expertise and incentives of most development bank staff, who tend to focus on extensive due diligence for a small number of large projects, and the new opportunities to reach energy impoverished customers, which require numerous smaller investments with higher risk.
“Development funding agencies can’t really go out and fund a hundred $1 million dollar rural electrification projects. The paperwork is massive, there’s a vetting process for all constituents, and they want traceability in terms of where all dollars are going and what payback is going to be,” Fluidic Energy CEO Steve Scharnhorst told Devex. The International Finance Corp., the World Bank’s venture capital arm, has invested in his clean energy company, which is leveraging its metal and air batteries to store electricity in renewable energy minigrids in emerging markets.“If you can bring scale through a minigrid and do 100 villages or 500 villages and make it a consolidated financial effort where the agencies are vetting a half dozen partners for a large investment, it makes it easier to get done.”
The Global Facility on Mini-Grids aims to remove the barriers constraining the expansion of low cost, clean energy minigrids in emerging markets, Malcolm Cosgrove-Davies, global lead for energy access at the World Bank, told Devex.
The group will host an event focused on minigrids in Nairobi, Kenya, later this month to evaluate successful minigrid projects. It will evaluate successful minigrid projects to understand what has worked from technology to policy to finance. Case studies might include the Infrastructure Development Company Limited program in Bangladesh, which has been called the most successful off-grid program in the world. Events such as these represent one way the global development community can rally market actors around a common vision and build momentum for minigrid market growth, said Kristina Skierka, campaign director of Power for All, a key organizer of EnergyAccessX.
For these success stories to scale in Africa, minigrids must rely on champions who can mobilize the money needed to bridge the market imperfections.
“I’m becoming increasingly obsessed with minigrids,” said Andrew Herscowitz, coordinator for the United States government’s Power Africa initiative. He said it is incumbent on donors and governments to give minigrids a chance to be a part of the solution beyond India. “We have to try,” he said.
Herscowitz named two partners in Beyond the Grid, a Power Africa sub-initiative, as examples of companies that are demonstrating points of commercial viability across multiple places on the African continent. He mentioned Powerhive, which partners with utilities and independent power producers to provide microgrid electricity, and Virunga Power, which develops, invests in, and operates rural distribution grids.
In Tanzania, Devergy, which deploys minigrid systems for low income people in rural villages, is partnering with Simusolar, which provides and finances energy efficient appliances, to test out a combined offering of microgrid and off-grid systems. Michael Kuntz, the San Francisco-based co-founder of Simusolar, said this effort will serve as a case study for how the two approaches are complementary rather than competitive.
Similarly, he hopes the Indian government will provide data as it implements its micro-grid and minigrid policy. Its success will depend on the details, from how the system is designed and presented, to how incentives from stakeholders are aligned, to how the product life cycle is managed, Kuntz said.
Small-scale microgrids are increasingly seen as the most promising way to bring electricity to the 1.3 billion people worldwide who currently lack it. In Kenya, an innovative solar company is using microgrids and smart meters to deliver power to villages deep in the African bush.
by Fred Pearce
Plugging into electricity for the first time is a big deal. Ask Peter Okoth. Until late last year, he struggled to make a go of his bar on the main street in Entasopia, a small, dusty town in Kenya’s Rift Valley, five hours from the capital Nairobi and 30 miles from the nearest grid power line. Then, he hooked up to a new solar-powered microgrid that serves local homes and businesses.
Now Okoth has eleven light bulbs, he says proudly — and enough power to run a TV and a sound system for his customers. Seventy people show up some evenings to watch, listen and buy his food and drink. His profits will soon
Photo: (c) Fred Pearce
SteamaCo agent John Pambio monitors the controls at the solar-panel hub in Entasopia.
buy a refrigerator to keep the beer cold in the searing desert heat, and a big screen to show satellite sports channels. “We will be staying open till midnight,” he says. And he has just bought construction materials for ten guest rooms. “When you next come, you must stay here.”
Most settlements in rural Kenya are dark at night. Only a third of the East African country’s residents have access to the national power grid. Harvesting the sun makes obvious sense in places like Entasopia. Hundred-dollar photovoltaic (PV) panels for installation on home roofs have been on sale for years. But the meager five watts that most such systems provide is only enough to power a couple of LED lamps each evening and a mobile phone charging point, and the batteries constantly need replacing. The country is full of discarded PV cells, defunct batteries, and disappointed customers.
But now, larger central village PV units linked by underground cable to dozens of houses and business are starting to transform lives. For a ten-dollar installation fee, the people of Entasopia can connect to a village microgrid and buy a share of a thousand times as much power. Village homes are filling with household appliances like refrigerators and washing machines, and the businesses on the main street are powering everything from welding equipment and fuel pumps to hair driers.
Microgrids are small electricity generation and distribution systems that operate independently of larger grids. Typically they rely on local sources of renewable energy, such as river flows, wind, biomass, or, most widely, the power of the sun. There are no official statistics on how many there are, or what their total power output is. But a recent study by U.S.-based Navigant Research, which studies new energy technologies, suggested that their combined generating capacity might now exceed 750 megawatts worldwide. They are, says Daniel Kammen, of the University of California,
Microgrids answer a criticism of rooftop solar, which some say can lock communities into energy poverty.
Berkeley, “a true hot-bed of innovation popping up all over the world.”
n countries such as Kenya, whose economies are growing faster than either conventional, centralized electricity generation or power grids, the potential of microgrids to electrify powerless communities is huge. Many believe they provide the only likely route to deliver UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon’s goal of bringing electricity to the 1.3 billion mostly rural people globally who currently lack it. And they answer a charge often made against roof-top solar power systems, which critics say can lock communities into energy poverty by offering only tiny amounts of power for each household.
Entasopia is as remote as it gets. It is close to the border with Tanzania, at the end of a bumpy laterite road that winds its way from Magadi, a town some 30 miles to the east. Its single street comprises houses fronted by tin-roofed buildings with businesses ranging from butchers and general stores to bars and mobile phone shops. It is where Maasai livestock herders in their bright traditional dress come to buy and sell, topping up their mobile phones before disappearing back into the bush. And it is where people from other Kenyan tribes such as the Luo, Kikuyu and Kamba have congregated since an irrigation project fed by rivers from nearby hills started watering fields of fruit and vegetables for sale to Kenyan cities.
Joseph Nyagilo, field manager for microgrid pioneer SteamaCo, picked out Entasopia for a microgrid in 2014 because of the town’s strong business activity, which he believed could benefit from the extra power that a such a
Photo: (c) Fred Pearce
Nancy Kasia now uses solar power to pump fuel at the filling station she owns in Entasopia.
system can provide. He is proud of the transformation.
At the village filling station, Nancy Kaisa uses solar power to pump fuel. “I had a diesel generator before, but this is much cheaper and easier,” she explains. John Owino, a repairman squatting in the sun outside his workshop, says he can now carry out welding repairs that once had to be sent to distant towns. And Okoth, the entrepreneurial bar boss, said lights meant he can now get up and start work at 4 a.m. Only the owner of the kiosk selling rooftop PV panels seemed gloomy. He was getting on his motorbike to find sales in a neighboring village that did not have a microgrid.
“Light from roof systems can improve quality of life, but only microgrids can lift people out of poverty,” says Emily Moder, SteamaCo’s software manager. “They are the next step up. And by allowing people to build businesses and another source of income, they improve the resilience of rural communities against drought or climate change.”
But SteamaCo is going further. In the past three years, it has been pioneering the use of smart meters in microgrids, and it now has 25 village grids across Kenya, supplying up to 10,000 people and businesses. The
SteamaCo’s solar panels were installed in the village chief’s yard at a cost of $75,000.
idea is to link the supply hardware to pre-payment services that use the country’s popular mobile phone-based banking system, M-Pesa. Cloud-based software keeps track of supplies and payments, alerting customers by text messaging when their credit runs low. There are no contracts, no bills, and no revenue collection problems. Customers can top up their credit, in amounts as small as a few cents. But once the credit expires, the lights go out.
Entasopia’s PV hub, renting space in the yard of the village chief, cost $75,000 to install. It has 24 panels with a maximum generating capacity of 5.6 kilowatts. A control box below houses the smart meter that measures and controls power to each of the 64 customers in town and also communicates remotely with payments software, cutting off power when credit is exhausted. In remote areas such as Entasopia, where wi-fi is largely absent, all data is sent by SMS. “One bar of mobile signal is all we need,” says Moder. “We can be everywhere.”
The site agent keeping a day-to-day eye on things in Entasopia is John Pambio, a young electrical engineer living down the street from the village chief, who also runs a shop repairing mobile phones and TVs. Pambio cleans the PV cells once a week and troubleshoots for customers suffering outages, trips, or damaged cables. The biggest power demand, he says, is at night, when lights, TVs, and sound systems come on. That is not a great match with solar energy production, which of course is in daylight hours. But, like most village hubs, Entasopia has battery storage sufficient for at least 24 hours of use.
Commercial microgrid PV systems still charge prices for power that are quite high. SteamaCo — and the microgrid partners that it increasingly licenses — charge between two and four dollars per kilowatt-hour. That delivers lighting more cheaply than kerosene, and power more cheaply than a diesel generator. But it is double the price of state-subsidized grid power in a city like Nairobi.
SteamaCo co-founder and chief technical officer Sam Duby believes that, just as microgrids are changing life in villages like Entasopia, so they have the potential to transform the prospects for scaling up solar energy elsewhere in Africa and the developing world.
First, replacing roof systems with village microgrids provides for the first time the amount and reliability of power that rural people want, which is enough to change their lives and livelihoods. Secondly, the smart metering that links village supply systems to pay-as-you-go charging networks, resolves the constant bugbear of village power systems — how to collect
Microgrids provide the amount and reliability of power that rural people want, which is enough to change their lives.
revenues from customers in poor and remote places. And thirdly, the data supplied by the smart metering has the potential to unlock the major financing that “Steama” is Swahili for “power.” But for Duby, the power is as much about data as electricity. Now, when he and his potential investors switch on their laptops in Nairobi and access the dashboard where data from the villages and payments systems is collated and analyzed, they can probe how thousands of the world’s poorest people use electricity and what encourages them to use more.
“Nobody has had this kind of data before,” says Moder. “It lowers barriers to investment, because the data provide greater certainly about payback. You can give investors real projections that aren’t a total guess.” Duby says the data also offer governments or donors the chance to directly subsidize solar power as it is purchased — a microgrid version of the feed-in tariffs that have kick-started solar and wind power in Europe.
The stories the data from places like Entasopia tell are not all good news. For instance, there is the experience of Margaret Mwangi, who set up a hair salon in the room behind her tiny general store across from Okoth’s bar. When Mwangi got solar power, she bought a refrigerator for selling cold drinks and a blow-drier for the salon. But each head of African hair takes 30 minutes to dry, and the power needed is costing too much. “Last month I paid 14,000 shillings [about $140] for electricity,” she complains. “I can’t afford that.” She has stopped paying, and her shop is now dark.
The reason for her problem is clear, says Nyagilo, the SteamCo field manager. Mwangi’s blow-drier is among the biggest power users in the village. Back in Nairobi they can see the power surge when she turns it on. Thirty minutes of use costs double the 50 cents extra that Mwangi charges her customers for the blow dry, but she says she dare not charge more. “Margaret used to be our biggest customer here. We want her to stay,” Nyagilo says. He is planning to offer her a special deal to get her back on line — maybe a flat-rate $50-a-month charge.
Back at SteamaCo’s headquarters in a small business park outside Nairobi, Moder opens up the data dashboard on her laptop. Zooming in on the Entasopia numbers, she trawls to see how much power Mwangi, Okoth, and their other customers tap from the microgrid, and how much they pay and when. Most customers top up 50 cents each evening to watch TV and keep the lights on. Some lose track of what they are paying and need help. “We need different tariff structures for different people,” she says. “But
Even though our customers are poor, they have purchasing power and know how to use it.’
with smart meters that is easy to do.”
SteamaCo’s origins lie in an NGO called Access:Energy set up in 2009 by Duby and current CEO Harrsion Leaf on the shores of Lake Victoria. It trained local craftsmen in making wind turbines from scrap metal. But its technology has come a long way. Renamed SteamaCo, it installed its first microgrid system with smart metering in 2013, on Remba, a remote fishing island in Lake Victoria. Since then, expansion has been fast. By mid-October, the company had 25 village grids across Kenya, with an additional five in Tanzania, Benin, Rwanda and Nepal, and five more ready for completion in Kenya by year’s end. “In 2016, we want hundreds of grids in dozens of countries,” says Moder.
In its first years, the company financed its work with aid money and research grants. But early investors also included the Vulcan Capital, set up by Microsoft founder and philanthropist Paul Allen. And now Duby and Leaf are raising money from equity funds that want a commercial return from the revenues of selling electricity. “We want to show this business can be profitable,” says Moder. “Even though our customers are poor, they have purchasing power and know how to use it. They don’t want charity, and we treat them as responsible consumers.” For instance, with revenues above $10,000 in its first year, SteamaCo’s microgrid in Entasopia is likely SteamaCo provides a very personal service. Nyagilo has toured hundreds of remote villages in the past three years, knocking on doors and probing business accounts to conduct instant assessments of their suitability for a microgrid. And he keeps returning to check on his customers. These days,
Powered by solar panels and biomass, microgrids are spreading slowly across India, where 300 million people live without electricity. But can these off-grid technologies be scaled-up to bring low-carbon power to tens of millions of people?READ MORE
when he visits Entasopia, he is besieged by people who turned down connection the first time around but now want to sign up.
Soon such personal service from one of the company’s top officers will probably be replaced by more anonymous operations, as companies purchase SteamaCo’s hardware and software. Most likely, they will communicate with customers via call centers. But, if smart microgrids take hold at the pace their proponents hope, the change to rural economies and lifestyles in Kenya and elsewhere in the developing world could be massive and permanent.
When the sun sets in the Rift Valley now, the lights come on in Entasopia. Instead of retreating into their homes, villagers hit the street, shop at the stalls, and head for the bars, where drinking cool beer and watching the early-evening TV news is still a novelty. Soon Peter Okoth and rival bar operators will switch on their sound systems. The night is young.
On the road out, Nyagilo passes the neighboring village of Ngurumani, which is swathed in darkness. “This,” he says, “is our next village for a microgrid.”
Media coverage of the press conference and actions by the Government of Sarawak include:
The Borneo Post, August 11, 2015 - Adenan wants SEB to light up the rural areasThe Malaysian Insider, July 31, 2015 - Adenan puts Baram dam on hold, agrees to listen to natives’ grousesRadio Free Sarawak, July 15, 2015 - "Sjotveit should be out", say SarawakiansThe Malaysian Insider, July 14, 2015 - Stop Baleh dam tender until environmental study scrutinised, says Sarawak PKRMongabay.com, July 8, 2015 - Sarawak can meet energy needs without mega-dams: report
BFM 89.9 - The Business Station (www.bfm.my), Radio and online interview, July 3, 2015, Clean energy options in East Malaysia
The National Geographic, July 1, 2015 - Amazon's Wildlife Threatened by Hydropower Dams, Study FindsThe Daily Express - East Malaysia, June 30, 2015 - Sarawak Mega Dam Project StudyThe Borneo Post, June 29, 2015 - Borneo May See the End of Mega-DamsThe Malaysian Insider, June 29, 2015 - Activists say Adenan rethinking mega dams policy in SarawakFree Malaysia Today, June 29, 2015 - Adenan May Drop Mega Dam ProjectsThe Maylay Mail, June 29, 2015 - CM pulls the brakes on Baram dam until he goes through detailed studies, group claims
Peter Kallang, Gabriel Wynn, Dan Kammen and See Chee How giving press conference on clean energy option reports at the Telang Usan Hotel, Kuching, Sarawak, East Malaysia.
Journalists attend RAEL & Green Empowerment Press conference in Kuching, Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo to discuss findings of studies of clean energy options, and to hear reports from Green Empowerment of the performance of mini-grids to meet community energy needs.
Text of the Borneo Post article:
KUCHING: Datuk Patinggi Tan Sri Adenan Satem may just scrap the state’s plan to build more mega hydroelectric dams in the state after listening to experts on alternative energy sources on Saturday.
A delegation comprising Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory (RAEL) director Prof Dr Daniel M Kammen, Green Empowerment Borneo Programme manager Gabriel Wynn, Save Sarawak Rivers Network chairman Peter Kallang and Batu Lintang assemblyman See Chee How briefed the chief minister at his residence here.
After the one-hour meeting, which included a presentation by Kammen on the benefits of using renewable energy such as solar, wind, sustainable biomass and micro-hydro in place of mega hydro-dams, the delegation had a feeling the Adenan administration would ‘seriously rethink’ its policy to build more mega dams.
See said the briefing had enabled Adenan to hear the ‘other side of the story’, rather than just depending on what Sarawak Energy Bhd (SEB) had to say.
“We gave him (Adenan) the authority to reconsider since he has heard from SEB with all their energy projections.
“We gave him an alternative, with studies showing him that the state does not need that kind of energy. You have Bakun HEP (hydroelectricity project) that is there for so long, but you’re only using half of its capacity.
“Of course, now with all these alternatives, which come in with graphic projections indicating what the state needs to meet demand for the next few decades, it is now clear we can actually use alternative renewable energy sources to replace all these big dams,” he told a press conference at a hotel here yesterday.
See added that the briefing on Saturday enabled Adenan to have a better picture of the whole situation, adding that the chief minister even asked Dr Kammen and Green Empowerment to submit a proposal and options of renewable energy (sources) that were practical for the state.
“They (Kammen and Green Empowerment) will do it very soon because they have everything (all the information) in the three reports that they have come out with based on studies. They have most of the things there – it’s just a matter of modifying them and giving the proposal to the chief minister.”
In his view as a non-Sarawakian, Kammen said the meeting with Adenan was ‘most interesting’ because a ‘very friendly discussion’ was held on the opportunities, benefits and costs of clean energy.
“In fact, we have been asked by the government to prepare a proposal – maybe to start off with some pilot villages or to visit some of the projects that are already in Sarawak or Sabah.
“I worked in Eastern Africa where last year, more people were connected to the grid with mini grids and off-grid products than by grid extensions,” said the professor, who is Class of 1935 ‘Distinguished Professor of Energy’ at the University of California in Berkeley.
Meanwhile, Kallang claimed Adenan told the delegation that the newspapers had misquoted him for stating he had given the ‘go-ahead’ with regard to the construction of Baram dam during a gathering of community leaders in Miri recently.
“He (Adenan) was consulting the community leaders, but lots of people there were not even from Baram. The majority of members of the Federation of Orang Ulu Malaysia (Forum) – the organiser of the event – are from Belaga, Limbang and Bario, with very few from Baram.
“They had nothing to lose, (which was why) they stood up and gave their support (for Baram Dam).”
Kallang also took the opportunity to submit to Adenan the anti-Baram Dam petition signed by more than 8,000 people who were affected by the project, and Kallang claimed Adenan responded ‘very positively’.
He said Adenan also gave his word to visit Baram after Hari Raya Aidilfitri.
“I asked him (Adenan) to visit the Baram people. Don’t just listen to community leaders because at the moment, the chief minister is only being fed with feedback by the community leaders. They are not representing all, they are only representing themselves.”
Kallang said Adenan was very receptive to the ideas raised during the Saturday presentation because he (Adenan) sympathised with the rural people.
“He (Adenan) told us: ‘I don’t care what but let there be light (in all the rural areas)’.”