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Dark Continents

Everybody from New York to Mumbai has a blackout story.  People stuck in subways, elevators and offices cope with the temporary darkness until the lights come back on.  Nine months later there is a mini-population spike.  Life goes on for the on the grid world.

What about life for the 1.7 billion people around the globe who live off the grid?

In Kenya, the U.N. estimates 85 percent of the population has no electricity.  Over three billion people worldwide are cooking and heating with wood and charcoal.  Millions of people in Africa, Mexico, Brazil and India are poaching their power from electricity lines above their homes and shops.  By climbing utility poles they dangerously attach illegal lines that weaken the grid for paying customers.

Riots caused by ten hour power cuts recently erupted in Pakistan.  Despite the billions the U.S. has poured into Afghanistan the capital Kabul is often dark.  For its people not to have dependable electricity is a sign a nation is not ready for the global stage.  The hunger for power drives developing countries like China and India on massive often environmentally disastrous projects to build hydroelectric dams to feed their underpowered grids.

But there is a movement in places like Kiptusuri, Kenya, Deki Tsunami, Eritrea and Bihar, India where the locals are living off the grid and doing it without fossil fuels. Small solar panels are popping up atop mud huts in Maasai villages and atop Mongolian herder yurts.  The grid will likely not reach Inner or Outer Mongolia, but the wind and sun do.

A Leading Light in Kiptusuri

Kiptusuri, Kenya is off the grid.  The nearest town with electricity is Mogotio – a three hour motorcycle taxi ride away.  Sara Ruto, a mother of teen girls, got tired of living off the grid.  She bought her first cell phone in 2009, and while it partially changed her life it came with complications.  Every time she needed to recharge it she had to journey to Mogotio.  That was no easy solution as hundreds of other rural people were also dropping off their cell phones for recharging.  It took three days for it to be recharged and she had to travel back and fourth spending $20 in a month.

The solution?  A small $80 Chinese-made Firefly LED solar panel that affixed to the top of her mud home.  In 2010 she sold several farm animals to afford the single solar panel, but it quickly paid dividends.  Her neighbors were curious and asked if she could recharge their cell phones.  Ruto’s entrepreneurial skills kicked in.  She began to charge them 20 cents for a recharge.

The health and education benefits were soon evident.  Ruto told the New York Times that her daughter’s grades improved as they could study at night under the four bulbs strung from the ceiling.  Kerosene was no longer needed and there wasn’t the danger of her kids getting burned or inhaling its fumes.  She also saved $15 a month on kerosene bills.  Today there are over 75 homes in Kiptusuri with various sized solar panels.  Tiny systems are playing a transformative role.

Hillman’s Solution

Francis Hillman realized the solution to rural Africa’s energy needs was solar.  The sun shines an average of 325 days on the miscalled ‘Dark Continent’ and is the most consistent energy source.  Huge hydro projects have been tried throughout southern Africa with varying effectiveness.  Globing warming has made the rains needed to fill reservoirs and rivers for hydro less dependent, but the sun remains a constant.

Hillman started a small solar business in Ethiopia’s Eritrea called Phaesun Asmara partnering with Germany’s Phaesun Gmbh, a company focused on rural electrification through solar systems that started in 2001.  Hillman began by partnering with NGOs on large solar projects and found there were many applications for the technology that could solve multiple problems.  In Deki Tsunai, Eritrea, in Akobo, South Sudan, and south of Mogadishu in Somalia, Hillman’s crews devised a solar powered water pumping system that brought these villages a reliable water system at a cost of around 130,000 euros each.

His rural electrification programs include lighting a rural school in Pessene, Mozambique.  The project allowed for night classes and lit the adjacent living quarters for teachers so they could prepare for the next day’s classes and have a better quality of life.  In February 2011, Phaesun completed a Maasai village electrification project using small rooftop solar panels.  The key to the projects are their low cost, simple features that require low maintenance.  Phaesun is also working in Mongolia and several African countries including Malawi, Uganda and Ghana.

Brightness in Bihar  

Solar is working in Africa, but rice husks are lighting rural India.  Gyanesh Pandey grew up in a rural village in Bihar state, that didn’t have grid power.  Bihar is India’s fastest growing state and has its youngest population but for decades has been considered India’s most backward regions.  Located on the country’s eastern fringe on the Nepalese border it’s been ignored by the central government, but is now experiencing a renaissance thanks to socially conscious companies like Husk Power Systems.

After spending nine years studying in America, Pandey went home in 2002 wanting to make a difference.  His degree from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Upstate New York gave him high tech ideas that weren’t applicable to rural Bihar.  “We originally thought that some super high-tech solution would fix the problem. We were proven wrong,” Pandey says.  He and three colleagues formed Husk Power Systems that uses discarded rice husks to power their mini-power plants through a  biomass gasification process that can power up to 500 homes for up to eight hours a night.  His mission was simple: “Liberate rural India from darkness,” Pandey told Smart Money magazine.

The for-profit started in 2007 and its success has been its simplicity.  The plants can be operated by a high school educated villager who is trained by Husk’s team.  The plants convert the husks to electricity and deliver it over insulated wires strung over bamboo poles that run to homes, businesses and farms.  Villages only pay what they use and it’s priced affordably.  So far 80 plants have been built to serve 300 villages with 200,000 customers.  Over 350 jobs have been created.  “We see this as a revolution in electricity.  A revolution in power.”

Islands of Success

There are other creative technologies being used in rural areas including subterranean biogas that turn cow manure into electricity.  Mini-hydro dams are also turning lights on in Asian villages, but the off-grid world still has a long way to having lights 24-7.

“There are many small islands of success, but they need to go to scale,” Minoru Takada, chief of the United Nations Development Program’s sustainable energy program, told the New York Times. “Off-grid is the answer for the poor. But people who control funding need to see this as a viable option.”

United Nations programs promoting climate-friendly energy in developing countries favor projects like giant wind farms or industrial sized solar plants that feed into the grid.  A $300 million solar project is easier to finance than millions of rooftop solar systems across Africa.

But the off-grid power to the people movement is underway with millions like Sara Roto who see energy as a path to a better future and will use new affordable renewable technology to get there.