Q: There is an assumption of access to certain equipment at the user level. Are these devices available to most of the poor? How much do they cost? How will they use them? What will the user experience be? A lot of this has not been investigated.
A: The technology isn't in place to investigate these fully yet, but this is cutting edge innovation and we need to develop a proof of concept. In the short term it will be focussing on rapid prototyping and extensive field testing. The devices are still in the prototyping phase at present, so the cost is not yet known. However, once the principal of operation of the network is shown, in order to prove the concept we will develop a low-cost version of the inverter which will allow this technology to proliferate even more and be widely available to the poor. The users will have no real need to interact with the technology, it will be fitted and maintained by the cooperative management committee with support from the initiating NGO and local manufacturer to ensure the smooth running of the system. The user will interact with the system as someone connected to the grid would, so they would be able to switch on a light, charge their ‘phone or listen to the radio when they wanted to. The major difference would be that they may have a restricted draw on the system, especially at times of high demand or low generation. The only equipment that the user would need to access would be electrical equipment that is readily available on the local market, such as light bulbs, phone chargers and so on. Give us a chance to investigate these things and we’ll do it!
Thanks for the questions. We’ll answer them one by one (spread over a couple of replies!).
Q: Is there a simple way to 'hack' a solution that can be tested in a live situation?
A: Simple inverters and controllers can be prototyped relatively cheaply and quickly, indeed we have a lot of experience in this already. We can use existing stand-alone PV panels and other power sources can then be used network together to form the grid. There is not an easy way to hack inverters as from experience they are sealed units. We are very interested in ‘system on a chip’ inverters developed in Cambridge and other integrated switch devices which will reduce the cost and complexity of inverter systems.
(Andrew Lamb is a co-founder of the innovation charity The Centre of Global Equality at the University of Cambridge and is able to make these connections.)
Q: What tools do people need to have? What are they willing to pay? What is the distribution model? All of these need to be tested as part of the development process - not just the technology.
A: We understand this question and are very familiar with these issues in the development and disaster relief sectors, in Nepal in particular. What is missing in our current efforts in this space is in fact the technology. What we are looking for is an opportunity to develop the technology to integrate in to our existing program. To answer your question more directly, the local NGO and manufacturer that would set-up the network would need to have a good understanding of how to lay out the system. The users would need some basic training on using and maintaining their source and how to share the power amongst themselves equally within the community. They would also need support to set up their energy cooperative and prepare the administration of the system. Currently, the users who do not have access to electricity, such as those in the slum in Thapathali, pay for kerosene, candles and rechargeable batteries to provide light within their home to the value of several hundred Nepali rupees a month. Even those who do have power, still need to provide light during load shedding, which places an additional strain on the household income. With a more reliable system, this would reduce this pressure. There are several payment models now available, from a pay-as-you-go mobile model, such as those developed by SteamaCo (http://steama.co/) or Azuri Technologies (http://www.azuri technologies.com/), to the fixed price pay monthly schemes that are used in many of the microhydro projects across Nepal. We would propose initially starting with the fixed price fixed consumption model, as this is the easiest to implement, but depending on the success of this, other models could be assessed and implemented.
Q: How have your intended users influenced the development of your design?
A: The design has been influenced by the users identifying the problem of a lack of or very unreliable electrical power, even with people serviced by small scale renewables or diesel generators. The problem has been identified through conversations between team members and slum residents in Nepal and all over the world. Most of the slums that have electricity had end uses for domestic purposes, such as cooking, lighting, charging mobile phones etc. However, this does not make their consumption sustainable, as there is little income to be generated from these. It has been shown in a minigrid program in Baglung district in Nepal, http://bit.ly/1Znmets, that the two most important factors within the successful and sustainable operation of the minigrid are having income generating end uses and ensuring good community cohesion in the management of the system. Therefore, a critical part of this project will be ensuring viable businesses are developed through the management cooperative for the local community to work in and that there is a good community buy-in to the scheme.
Nice idea Edward! Something else for us to talk about. I'm working on my second MOOC now - writing on open data this time. Do you know Appropedia? www.appropedia.org. We're looking to move into 'Open Know-How' which might be relevant to this idea.