Last year, re-innovation had two students, Shoan Mbabazi and Jon Leary, working on a project I had proposed for a electronic load controller for micro-hydro systems. These students were from the Sheffield University e-futures PhD course and completed this work as a ‘mini’ project.
It is estimated that, around two billion of the world’s population have no access to modern forms of energy, such as electricity or fossil fuels. The vast majority live in rural villages in the developing world, far from existing electrical grids and often scattered around the landscape, making distribution to individual houses difficult and costly. Therefore, the majority of these communities depend on human power and biomass alone, and as a result, time that could be spent on income generating activities is used up on time consuming daily tasks, such as collecting firewood. Such monotonous activities keep these people in poverty. Although monthly costs for electricity may be affordable, grid connection fees in remote areas are often very high, especially when many poorer households are having to survive on as little as US$1 a day. As a result, alternative solutions to rural electrification are required. Stand-alone power generation plants can provide the answer since they remove the need for long and inefficient transmission lines. Local ownership takes away the need to deal with city-based energy tariffs, allowing flexibility in the supply options to include poorer households in the community. In addition, profits are kept within the local community, thereby contributing to the development of these areas.
Where suitable resources are available, renewable energy systems such as micro-hydro, wind and solar are becoming a viable option for supplying sustainable power to rural areas of the developing world. However, to accomplish the objective of sustainably increasing electrification in these areas, the technology needs to be integrated into the local culture. Reliance on expensive imported parts and/or expertise is not a sustainable solution.
The key features of a successful technology for increasing rural electrification in the developing world are considered to be:
- Simplicity of design – local people should be able to understand the technology.
- Ease of manufacture – local people should be able to manufacture the system with the tools, materials and expertise available to them.
- Robustness – the technology needs to withstand extreme local conditions.
- Ease of maintenance – if it does break, local people should be able to fix it quickly and easily using locally available tools and materials.
- Cost – when relying on less than US$1 per day, cost is likely to be paramount.
Although not much has happened with this project recently, I hope to continue this work in the near future. If you have any experience with micro-hydro systems as part of international development and would like to be involved in this project then please get in touch.