Sunday, September 30, 2007

Green Empowerment Workshop - PV/RE in Developing Countries

Heather recently sent around an email saying that there would be an Oakland photovoltaic/renewable energy workshop that would focus on sociocultural issues of developments as well - exactly the direction that I'm headed toward now that I have decided that the "technology" part contributes only maybe 10% to the probable success of the project. Human dynamics, cultural differences, education, planning, maintenance, risk management, etc. seem to make up the rest of any possible local solution. Green Empowerment seems to focus on bottom up development (vs. big plans and big money), allocating most of their funds for local NGOs. They lead tours, advise, install, and teach good things like principles of solar cells for electricity (e.g. lights) or water pumping, and pico/microhydroelectric.

The 2.5 day workshop included both technical aspects - everything that you could imagine about planning a PV system - plus a discussion of things that went awry in countries all over the world (cultural issues). Unlike many humanitarian aid projects, solar power installations require a moderate amount of technical skill in the community - some solid state physics, decent electrical practices, and a good sense of maintenance/troubleshooting if the project is to succeed for years. The global PV industry (now in almost every country) still sells mostly "components" and then users have to specify what they need to provide enough power, order the right pieces (there is lots about all this in the GE handouts for the class), wire it all together, test if for mistakes, and train the populace - not particularly a consumer friendly process. And there are all kinds of assumptions that need to be made in sizing a system (too big is to be avoided because of $), but in the end you round up number in the number of solar panels and batteries so it doesn't really matter that you have uncertainties. Except that the cost can be higher.

Demos and hands - on sessions gave people experience with all the components, and with wiring them all together, and I'll be building my own tiny system soon. There might be +10 years until household solar is mainstream (I remember trying to promote compact fluorescents, CFLs, 25 years ago, when their quality was poor), but I saw the need for a handful of engineered widgets that might help hurry solar measurements along. LED lighting is going to be the next big thing (look at the lumens per watt table in the middle), and research is making them better everyday. Exciting to be on a steep curve for a new material - commercialized but still under intense development. The auto and industrial markets are going to be first adopters, because they measure costs much more carefully - watch their $/lumen costs. And here are 120VAC LED Edison bulbs ($1-$2/lumen). But using auto LED lights in other applications is hampered because they require special sockets - has anyone seen socket adapters to convert 12VDC "twistlock" or "bayonet" car lamps into household screw "Edison" bulb bases? A little adapter can be co-injection molded (to insert the metal parts) that should only cost $1 - but is it really needed by the people in the field? I think options will be needed because auto lamps are available in a variety of low wattages, they are dropping faster in price than residential bulbs, there are many incentives for improvement, there will soon be an incredible number on the market (economies of scale), etc. Let the auto industry do the work and home PV systems will benefit for free.

Also, a few more diagnostic tools may be needed - some manufacturers build more features into their best products, but for example is there a tiny, cheap power meter that can be used for various purposes? A kW-hr meter is not needed to charge homes for the exact amount of electricity they use, but it would be handy to see how the PV load is distributed throughout the community, and over time. Or battery characteristics - state of charge, health, input and output, etc. Someday the best of these parameters will be clearly shown on a standard panel (like consumer electronics now) that makes solar easy, but for now a little cheap datalogging and some USB connectivity wouldn't hurt.

And, the more I look the more I find - industrial lights (floodlights, streetlights, traffic lights) are here and I am still trying to figure out why a traffic light seems to cost so much less (in $/lumen/watt, or similar units) than %$#@&! consumer models.

One thing that will take time to seep into the mentality for PV installations everywhere is the drive for quality that system manufacturers in other industries (automobiles, computers, DVD players, medical instruments, and similar complex things) now use to increase reliability and prevent consumer problems. From the start of a project new ways to determine risk (system too large or small, things that might happen to break the system, quality of components...) should be identified and then slowly reduced. This kind of thing is what can be missing when things are manufactured in developing countries, where quality is a new concept (the last thing to learn in every new business). But QC tools are everywhere - new types of connectors (so no mis-wiring), error proofed maintenance, more robustness, better instructions, community participation, an overall rise in familiarity with technology, etc. will eventually make solar as easy as connecting up to the big grid (plugging into a wall socket) right now - and for now we can just try to facilitate this change.

next post - I'll try to review the recent book "White Man's Burden", which postulates that grassroots efforts like these are the best solutions - and big aid projects are doomed because they provide none of the right incentives.