The promise of renewable energy for all of humanity: Twenty percent of the world lacks access to electricity

The quest for efficient, affordable, sustainable renewable energy is a widely shared dream, not only among readers of this magazine but for countless people around the world concerned with our collective future.

Unfortunately, for nearly one-fifth of humanity, this dream seems completely unattainable. In fact, 1.3 billion people or nearly 20 percent of the world’s population have no access to electricity at all. They have never had access and, unless the developed nations take action, there’s little indication they ever will. Moreover, a similar number of people have limited access to very unreliable grid electricity. Nearly 40 percent of the world’s population has no access or limited access to electricity!

Though many renewable energy (RE) enthusiasts seek to cut ties with or lessen dependence on the grid, for villages in many parts of sub-Saharan Africa and in Asia, being off-grid is not a choice; it is a fact of life that governs their daily struggle to survive. It is difficult to imagine how a lack of electricity severely curtails life’s possibilities. The absence of electricity poses a nearly insurmountable roadblock to communication, education, global commerce and, certainly, personal and national aspirations.

Those of us in the developed world can change this situation. As we pursue renewable energy for all its environmental and self-sufficiency benefits, we are historically and morally obligated to share our advancements. With the right approach we can nurture renewable energy-based businesses in at-risk communities and create sustainable economic development.

To accomplish this we founded IEEE Smart Village. The IEEE Smart Village mission is to donate startup micro-utility businesses to local entrepreneurs in off-grid villages who will instantly provide fellow villagers with electricity at lower cost than they now spend on kerosene and other energy sources. At the same time the entrepreneurs are challenged to grow this business to reach at least a million people in five years. Immediate access to reliable electricity, modest as it seems, can spur new, local, community-based economic development and generate self-sufficiency.

Many readers of Renewable Energy World are members of IEEE – the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers – which is dedicated to “Advancing Technology for Humanity.” IEEE Smart Village is one of IEEE’s means to truly meet that mandate. Briefly, I’ll describe our approach and its impacts on real people. I also invite readers of Renewable Energy World to join our mission in some capacity.

We began our work in 2011 with a major pilot program for home lighting in Haiti, which now serves well over 3,000 homes and 18,000 people. Since 2012, new startup programs in Nigeria, Cameroon and South Sudan have grown to currently match the Haiti rate of growth. These efforts were followed in 2014-15 by new self-sustaining startups and partnerships in Kenya, Namibia, Zambia and India, altogether reaching an estimated 50,000 people. In addition, ten new partnerships are poised for full startup development in 2016 in India, Malawi, Philippines, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Burkina Faso, Papua New Guinea and Bangladesh. Each startup is being challenged with the reach-a-million-people goal. Some recent highlights:

In India, Smart Village partner Paras Loomba has used his Global Himalayan Expedition (GHE) to bring dedicated 12-volt DC microgrids to many ancient villages such as Shingo nestled in the 14,500-foot-high Rumbak Valley of Ladakh, in farthest northern India. The installed systems provide community lighting as well as support new businesses that serve trekkers along this popular route. GHE works with villagers in advance, funding home improvements to help villagers offer paying customers brightly lit lodging, food, cell phone charging and even DC-powered TV reception. This part of the world has 250 days of bright sun per year. These local businesses pay for the electricity they receive, creating a sustainable business. The microgrid is maintained by a GHE-trained local operator, who also books customers and leads expeditions. Solar panels, batteries and all parts have to be packed in by horses over an 18,000-foot pass, so the scale of the technology is limited to what pack animals can carry on often-treacherous trails. In winter villages may be unreachable for a month or more so high reliability of equipment is a top priority.

In Zambia, a partnership of LiChi’s Community Solutions, Ltd., a new local entrepreneur nonprofit, and KiloWatts for Humanity, a Seattle-based nonprofit, has built an energy kiosk in the village of Filibaba. Until now, villagers traveled 23 kilometers (> 14 miles) to charge phones and other devices. Simply lighting a home or a business had been impossible. With the kiosk, villagers can create ancillary businesses or use electronic devices for commerce. Long-range plans include home lighting, cell phone charging and the establishment of larger microgrid anchor loads such as churches, businesses and schools. The lead entrepreneur is a Zambian woman electrical engineer, Likonge Makai Mulenga.

In Nigeria, Ifyeani Orajaka and his Green Village Electricity (GVE, Ltd.) are building large solar-plant powered microgrids in local communities with a major loan from the country’s Bank of Industry. Orajaka has one village online with 12.5 kilowatts (kW) of PV generation and by year’s end he’ll have powered three more villages, each with 25kW of PV power serving 200 homes. Orajaka’s goal is to provide power to 200,000 homes and a million people over five years. Now, children can study at night, shopkeepers remain open after dark, streets are lit, and communication with other villages and the outside world will facilitate education, healthcare and economic development for locals.

We are tying together these far-flung successes via the Internet to benefit all, including us in the developed world. Through a technologically sophisticated IEEE Global Classroom, physically located at the Posner Center for International Development and supported by Regis University, Denver, Colo., a pilot program at the masters’ level in development practice is underway for in-country entrepreneurs and IEEE Smart Village supporters. One requirement for our support of these entrepreneurs’ projects is that they develop case studies to be shared broadly with the rest of the IEEE Smart Village community. The main intent of the classroom, however, is to develop community-based online curricula in partnership with communities, to offer classes from grade schools and up to mature adults and community leaders as well as to the technical and business communities. Thus a prime goal is to serve electricity needs along with local schools and interconnectivity for reciprocal global learning and strategizing on solutions for community sustainable development.

Our financial goal, under the aegis of the IEEE Foundation, is to raise a $10 million fund to sustain ten new startups per year for at least the next decade. To accomplish all this, we need donations, volunteers, expertise and ideas. Perhaps you’d like to participate in one of the great challenges of our time. If so, please visit the IEEE Smart Village website, fill out our online questionnaire for volunteers and/or make a donation. Remember your own dreams, and please consider sharing your support and your gift of being able to dream with all of humanity.

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Ray Larsen is one of the co-founders of IEEE Smart Village and a co-chair of the initiative’s executive committee. Recipient of the 2015 IEEE Richard M. Emberson Award and IEEE Life Fellow, Ray is the special projects engineering manager at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford University in Menlo Park, California.

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