Powered by the Sun: Bringing Solar to the Developing World

Magnificent CME Erupts on the Sun - August 31All over the world, the goal of bringing development to impoverished communities and nations – but in ways that won’t cause additional harm to the natural environment – remains problematic. As the cases of China and India demonstrate, the world’s fastest growing economies in the 21st century, rapid industrialization may bring economic development, but it comes with a slew of consequences.

These include urban sprawl, more emissions from cars and public transit, and the poisoning of waterways through toxic runoff, chemicals and fertilizers. With seven billion people living in the world today, the majority of which live in major cities and are dependent on fossil fuels, it is important to find ways to encourage growth that won’t make a bad situation worse.

solar_quetsolBut to paraphrase an old saying, crisis is the mother of creative solutions. And amongst forward-looking economist and developers, a possible solution is take the latest advancements in solar, wind, tidal power and biofuels, and tailor them to meet the needs of local communities. In so doing, it is hoped that the developing world could skip over the industrial phase, reaping the benefits of modernization without all the dirty, unhealthy consequences.

Two such men are Juan Rodriguez – a young man who was studying for his business administration at the Universidad Francisco Marroquin in and cut his teeth working for major multinationals like Pampers, Pepto Bismol and Pantene – and his childhood friend Manuel Aguilar, a Harvard graduate with a degree in astrophysics who had gone on to manage a global hedge fund.

solar_quetsol1Three years ago, the two agreed that they were looking for something else and began investigating renewable energy. The result was Quetsol, a company that uses solar energy to improve the quality of life of poor communities living off the electrical grid. In Rodriguez’s and Aguilar’s native Guatemala, such poverty is widespread, with close to 20% of the population living without electricity and relying primarily on candles for light.

This picture of poverty is not exactly news. But after spending a year visiting close to 100 such communities, Rodriguez and Aguilar began to get a clear picture of why solar hadn’t yet succeeded. As Rodriguez put it:

Going to a community and talking about solar power isn’t like going into a community and talking about space travel. It is something that people have already seen, because NGOs have donated solar systems to these communities for decades. In many cases, the systems worked perfectly, but eventually the batteries died, and nobody was there to service them.

solar_quetsol2There solution was to start from the bottom up, using the free-market principle of adapting their approach to meet local needs. This would involve identifying communities before visiting them, taking into account how many people were living without electricity, and what the housing situation was like. When they then visited these communities, they sought out community leaders and held public meetings to learn about them and present their ideas.

Buildings relationships with local communities was a challenge, but so was creating a product for a market whose needs ranged from basic lighting and cell phone charging to powering a refrigerator all day. What they found was that unelectrified communities were relying on terribly inefficient means, ranging from diesel generators to walking to the nearest electrified community to plug in a phone.

solar_quetsol3What was resulted was a Solar Kit, consisting of a 10W Solar Panel, a control box with 7 Amp Battery, 2  LED Bulbs  (and a third optional bulb), and a universal cell phone charger. This kit has the ability to provide five hours of electricity to a house made up of two rooms that measure roughly 25 square meters (225 square feet) each. This is the typical design of homes in rural Guatemala, with one room serving as the bedroom and the other as the kitchen.

With that done, they began working on their sales strategy. Initially, this consisted of working with microfinance credit institutions to help families and communities purchase their solar kits. But after watching too many credit applications get rejected, they took a page from the telecom companies that have made cell phones ubiquitous in Guatemala, Basically, they switched to a pay-as-you-go plan.

solar_quetsol4Today, Quetsol employs a staff of 20 people and boasts board members like Google’s Tom Chi. There product line has also expanded, with the Q1 Solar Kit being supplemented by the Q3, a heavier model that boasts a 75W solar panel, an 85 Amp Battery, and five LED bulbs. The Q2 Kit – a middle of the road model with a 30W panel, 34 amp battery and 3 bulbs – is soon to be released.

But most importantly of all, they have electrified more than 3,500 homes in Guatemala thus far. But that is just a drop in the bucket compared to their long-term goal. Basically, the organization is viewing Guatemala as a stepping stone to all of Latin America as well as Africa by 2015. By 2016, they’d like to tackle the nearly 700 million off-the-grid homes in Asia.

Might sound ambitious, but Rodriguez and Marroquin feel they have the business acumen and social entrepreneurial savvy to pull it off. And given their background and business model, I’d say they are about right. Combined with other technologies that merge local needs with clean, efficient, and renewable means, development in the developing world might actually be an eco-friendly possibility.

Sources: fastcoexist.com, quetsol.com

 

Climate Crisis: Rising Tides and Sinking Cities

climate_changetideWith all the population, urban sprawl, and consumption that we as a species are imposing on the planet, there are those who argue that we’ve entered a new geological era – known as the Anthropocene. It’s an age we’ve lived in since the neolithic revolution and the advent of farming, one where the human race is the dominant force shaping our planet. Since the industrial revolution, this era has been accelerating and escalating, and things are not likely to get better anytime soon.

It is because of this that we need to contemplate what the near future will look like. Consider the recent floods in the Canadian Prairies, or last year’s wildfires which raged across the American midwest. Consider the famines and shortages that led to a world food price crisis in 2007-8 which had serious political consequences, especially in the Middle East (i.e. the Arab Spring).

climate_changesandyWhen you add to this the fact that rising tides and the increased risk of storms are already effecting coastal communities in severe ways, you begin to understand just how turbulent the next few decades are likely to be. Already, incidents like Hurricane Katrina and Sandy, which rocked the Gulf of Mexico and the Eastern Seaboard in just the past decade, have shown just how extensive the damage can be.

Historically speaking, cities have been built in fertile river valleys and at river mouths to take advantage of fertile conditions, maritime resources and trade. Agricultural run-offs of sediment, water and nutrients created rich coastal deltas that could support greater food production. This and the good maritime and river connections for trade and transport made these ideal places to live.

Population_curve.svgBut as populations grew, rivers were tapped and diverted for irrigation, industry and canal transport. They were also trapped behind dams and reservoirs for energy and water storage, and depleted by droughts and other extractions. Meanwhile groundwater is increasingly being extracted from beneath cities, and sea levels are rising because of the run-off from the melting of glaciers and thermal expansion of the oceans.

As a result of these changes, many major cities are slowly sinking into the oceans. Our rapid industrialization over the past century has sped these processes, so that now, many urban centers face inundation by storm surges, and we stand to lose many of the most economically important parts of our planet. The loss of these cities will mean a terrible loss of life, economic fallout, and a massive refugee crisis.

Population_densityCities from Bangkok to New York have already experienced emergency flood conditions, and many more are to follow. Those most at risk include Mumbai, Guangzhou, Shanghai, Miami, Ho Chi Minh City, Calcutta, New York City, Osaka-Kibe, Alexandria and New Orleans. More than 3 billion people currently live in coastal areas at risk of global warming impacts such as rising sea levels – a number expected to rise to 6 billion by 2025.

And as was recently learned, the carbon levels in the upper atmosphere have surpassed 400 ppm (parts per million). The last time the atmosphere boasted this concentration of greenhouse gases was the Pliocene Era, a time when sea levels were as much as 60 to 80 feet higher than they current are. If sea levels rise to that level again, we can say goodbye to all these major cities, as well as any that sit on major waterways.

climate_changeshanghaiIt’s not just a matter of water rising up to swallow the coastlines, you see. As the flooding in southern Alberta and the Canadian Prairies demonstrated this week, there’s also the threat of flooding due to increased precipitation and of sewage systems backing up from increased storms and rainfall. These threats make shoring up river deltas and waterways effectively useless, since its not simply a matter of blocking the tides and rivers.

In terms of solutions, a number of major cities are investing in new sea walls, dykes and polders, or high-tide gates – like London’s Thames Barrier – to hold back high waters. In poorer places, people simply endure the problem until they are forced to abandon their homes. As the problem gets worse though, coordinated efforts to rescue people caught in flood zones will need to be mounted.

climate_changedykesAnd there are those who speculate that underwriting the damage will be a waste of time, since no government will be able to afford to compensate its citizens for the untold billions in property damage. In reality, many of these place will simply have to be abandoned as they become unlivable, and those forced out resettled to higher ground or protected communities.

At this point in any lecture on the fate of our planet, people are about ready to abandon hope and hang themselves. Hence, I should take this opportunity to point out that plans for dealing with the problem at the root – cutting our carbon footprint – are well underway. In addition to clean energy becoming more and more feasible commercially, there are also some very viable concepts for carbon capture.

These include inventions like artificial trees and ecoengineering, which will no doubt become absolutely essential in coming years. At the same time though, urban planning and architecture are beginning to embrace a number of alternative and clean technology concepts as part of their design. Not only will future buildings be designed to provide for the needs of their residents – food, water, electricity – in sustainable ways, they will also incorporate devices that can trap smog and turn it into biofuels and other useful products.

Of this, I will be saying more in the next post “Thinking, Breathing Cities of the Future”. Stay tuned!

Source: bbc.com