Lighting Up Haiti

IEEE volunteers help bring electricity to rural areas

7 April 2011

Solar-power stations housed in six trailers are sitting aboard a cargo ship this month heading to Grand Goâve, a town of nearly 50 000 inhabitants in southern Haiti that was 90 percent destroyed in last year's earthquake. Another nine trailers are to be shipped by the end of the year. The power sources are the first of many, it is hoped, that could eventually provide electricity for much of the country's rural areas.

The so-called SunBlazer solar trailers were developed by a team of dedicated IEEE volunteers who answered an IEEE challenge to provide low-cost, reliable electricity to a poor rural area. The team, formed by Life Fellow Ray Larsen, Fellow Robin Podmore, and Senior Member Liang Downey, has spent almost two years designing and building the power station, now in its first proof-of-concept deployment by the IEEE Community Solutions Initiatives group.

CSI, a not-for-profit group within the IEEE Power & Energy Society (PES), is committed to the open-source design and delivery of power stations to the world's poorest and most energy-deprived populations. Larsen and Podmore co-chair the group, which is composed entirely of volunteers. The initiative evolved out of the three-year IEEE Humanitarian Technology Challenge (HTC), which began in 2008. The challenge asked IEEE members and others to work on three technical problems facing poor countries: providing reliable sources of electricity, electronically identifying patients and storing their health records, and developing a data-transmission system for exchanging health information between remote and central medical offices. The CSI solar generator project, as well as other energy initiatives, have proceeded under sponsorship by the PES, which has been largely responsible for the funding. It provided the solar generator project with US $50 000 for last year and this year.

stowed SunBlazer trailer with solar panels stowed away and ready for travel. Photo: Ray Larsen

"Those volunteers had donated thousands of hours of their time and even their own money to this project, and the thought of having no place in IEEE for them to carry on their mission was just incomprehensible," says Al Rotz, PES president. "Besides, the CSI objectives are a great fit with the PES mission."

OFF THE SHELFThe SunBlazer trailers rely primarily on off-the-shelf components. When shipped, most of the trailer space is taken up by 12-volt lead-acid battery packs for the home, as well as six silicon photovoltaic panels. The panels can collect more than 4 kilowatt-hours of energy per day, enough to power 40 battery packs. Or, some of that energy can be converted for use by a school, community center, or small business. Such larger "base load" customers are to be served by additional trailers.

Rather than relying on a central power station, with electricity distributed to each home, the solar panels charge four large station batteries in the trailer from which the smaller home packs are charged. A pack is then carried to a home where each can provide, for example, power for LED light bulbs, chargers for mobile phones, a radio, and small power tools. This can all be wired using wiring kits also shipped in the trailer. Several battery packs could also power small refrigeration units or water-purification or pumping stations.

Once the home battery pack is depleted to the 50 percent level, it automatically cuts off to preserve a long battery life. Then it must be carried back to the trailer station, where the homeowner receives a battery recharge or an exchange unit.

Each solar trailer costs about $14 000. The six trailers are scheduled to be deployed in six towns: Anse-à-Veau, Bellanger, Jérémie, L'Azile, Marmelade, and St. Etienne. CSI envisions that community entrepreneurs would ultimately install and manage up to five trailers, which could launch a viable business. In the future, mobile power stations could be placed wherever in Haiti no electric grid exists, an idea supported by the electrical authority under the Ministry of Public Works, Transportation, and Communications. The wheeled trailers also could be pulled into position for deployment during a natural disaster or other emergency. They can be up and working in less than an hour.

"These mobile power stations are a great interim solution for countries where it is uneconomical to extend the electric grid," Rotz says.

A central power station, where power is produced and delivered, is a legacy from the developed world, Downey says. The SunBlazer approach exemplifies the microgrid approach to power distribution applicable to the developing world.

"The idea is for a building to have its energy generated on site by renewable or alternative sources," notes Downey. "The zero-energy buildings initiative, where a building will have its on-site energy generation from renewable or alternative sources to serve its power need, has driven much of the development of microgrid technology, connecting energy generation to load devices directly in the United States and other parts of world," she notes. "Microgrid, as manifested in CSI's SunBlazer, will help developing nations to leap-frog in their energy development, providing efficient and reliable power."

A COMMUNITY APPROACHCSI's core philosophy includes the provision that any power system it develops must be community-oriented. The approach is two-pronged: people must pay a fee, no matter how modest, for the electricity they receive, and local people must be found to make a business, albeit a nonprofit one, out of providing the electricity.

The fee is based on surveys of how much a typical "pre-electric" home spends for lighting by kerosene or candles, plus how much it costs to charge a cellphone.

"Each new trailer will become a profit-making community business, with salaries paid to workers providing the service," Larsen says. "The payments must also be applied to building more trailers to expand the coverage."

CSI requires the projects it supports to be designed as what it calls sustainable entrepreneurial models, in which seed funding is used to bring each new start-up pilot project to completion. The pilot is then used to attract the investment capital needed to scale up the business.

For the Haiti solar-generator project, seed funding came from the Humanitarian Technology Challenge, the IEEE Nuclear Plasma and Sciences Society, the PES, and the IEEE Foundation, plus large donations from individuals both inside and outside IEEE. In addition, private companies, including Russell Engineering, in North Carolina, which specializes in home solar systems lent their expertise—helping, for instance, to develop the concept through a small-scale model and an early prototype, and to mount the system in the mobile trailer. It also contributed the SunBlazer name and logo.

DEVELOPMENT PARTNERSEach IEEE humanitarian project must be developed together with a nonprofit, nongovernmental organization partner with the capacity and vision to deploy sustainable growing businesses in which essentially all profits are reinvested. According to Larsen, the solar generator group was fortunate to partner with Sirona Cares, an NGO already working in Haiti on economic development projects. Sirona has a for-profit entity, Sirona-Haiti, that hopes to secure the capital needed to build thousands of solar generators and reach at least 1 million people in the next five years. The growth plan is aggressive: Sirona-Haiti will require venture capital of close to $40 million to support its five-year plan.

INSPIRATIONA community-wide approach was just what Larsen, the deputy head of engineering at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford University, was looking for when he got involved in 2009 with the IEEE Humanitarian Challenge.

"After years of reading books on how to eradicate poverty and learning how little it would take to rectify so many situations, we applied the books' best ideas," Larsen says. "One was that projects have to be on a community, not on an individual, scale. We also realized that technology people have a critical role to play."

Downey got involved with the challenge because, she says, "using technology to solve pressing humanitarian needs is a great goal that makes being part of IEEE so valuable."

"A lot of engineers design systems for intellectual curiosity and fun," she continues. "But how nice is it to work for a worthwhile cause. It makes what we do so much more meaningful."

Downey was so enthusiastic that she succeeded in involving her employer, Nextek Power Systems, headquartered in Detroit with an office in Bohemia, N.Y., where she works. Nextek builds direct-current power networks for buildings or, in other words, a DC microgrid. For the generator project, Nextek donated technical assistance and labor for building the units and provided funding, and its landlord donated warehouse space to build the units. Downey herself is responsible for business development and partnership outreach for the company.

CSI members under co-chair Podmore are working on other projects as well, including a pedal-powered generator and a low-cost wind turbine. Another concept, a portable "solar suitcase" to provide power to illuminate medical clinics, is being evaluated in the field by a CSI NGO member, WeCare Solar.

"The volunteers who work on these projects are just absolutely dedicated people," says Russ Lefevre, former chair of the IEEE Humanitarian Technology Challenge. "It's a heartwarming experience to talk to them, because they are working so hard to make things better for others."

In addition to the Community Solutions Initiative, IEEE recently launched the Engineering for Change project, a partnership with the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and Engineers Without Borders-USA. The partnership is charged with developing technical, locally appropriate, and sustainable solutions to humanitarian challenges. IEEE members may volunteer for both the Community Solutions initiative and the partnership.

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