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Solar & Alternative Energy

Lighting a Fire

Alternative energy technologies allow groups in developing countries to start businesses, be self-sufficient.
18 November 2008, SPIE Newsroom. DOI: 10.1117/2.2200811.0001

A Huichol woman observes a solar-powered blanket.

Solar power and alternative energies are often considered futuristic devices and reserved for urban environments. Now, non-profits and villages in developing nations are adapting these new technologies for their own needs. By providing themselves with reliable energy sources and the knowledge to manage them, they are improving their daily lives and economic situation, as well as reducing environmental impacts.

The Portable Light Project, led by Sheila Kennedy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in September 2008 was named a Tech Award Laureate by the Tech Museum of Innovation in San Jose, CA, for its work with solar textiles. The Portable Light Project has created flexible photovoltaic materials, digital electronics, and solid-state lighting, and embedded them into different textiles, or has provided these materials to different groups to weave into their textiles. The first project was with the Huichol women in Sierra Madre, Mexico. They used the materials to make energy-harvesting bags, bringing a reliable light source to a nomadic, collective community group of more than 300 people. The materials have also been used by tuberculosis patients in South Africa and by environmentalist groups in Nicaragua.

The Solar Electric Light Fund (SELF) is a non-profit focused on promoting, developing, and facilitating solar electrification of rural areas founded in 1990. They work with villagers to organize, set up, build, and maintain electric power stations, with an emphasis on training locals how to set up and maintain the solar systems.

"Without energy, basically just about anything and everything rural communities need to improve the quality of their health, education, or economic status, none of that is achievable," says Bob Freling, executive director of SELF.

SELF's first project in 1991, the UNDP/GEF Zimbabwe Solar Project for Rural Household and Community Use for the Global Environment Facility, has since expanded to include 9,000 households, and spawned dozens of small solar enterprises. In 2000, SELF branched out to other projects, including powering health clinics, water pumps, and drip irrigation systems.

SELF participants install solar panels in Africa.

In 2008 SELF launched a pilot project in Benin, western Africa, to create an independently run and operated Internet system. Formed under the name SolarNetOne, the solar-powered WiFi system will be a part of a larger solar program to bring electricity to schools, businesses, health clinics, and water systems to 44 different villages, or about 100,000 people.

"Just providing electric light for rural families represents a huge quantum leap in the quality of their lives, improves their health, and has educational implications," says Freling.

The power of light is the drive behind organizations like Light up the World (LUTW) Foundation and Lights for Life, both based in Canada. The organizations provide LED lights to families in developing nations, either through donations or micro-credit. Providing poor households with safe, reliable LED light allows children to study at night and receive a good education.

"When we first started to think about what we could do to help people illuminate their lives, it was so that children could read, because education is everything. If you're educated there's nothing you can't do," says David Irvine-Halliday, professor at the University of Calgary and co-founder of Light up the World.

Light systems can be purchased through micro-credit for about the price of a year's worth of the traditional lamp fuel kerosene, which is expensive, carcinogenic, and can easily catch fire. People who live with kerosene lanterns "smoke" the equivalent of two packs of cigarettes a day. Respiratory illnesses are common throughout the world where lanterns are used. Using five LED lamps instead of kerosene also prevents one ton of CO2 from being released into the atmosphere.

Some groups have taken the idea of self-sufficiency to heart, both in their energy and education. Barefoot College, based in Tilonia, Rajasthan, India, was founded in 1986 and offers a solar engineering program to women from all over the world. They come to the college for six months and are trained using visual and verbal lessons - no books, since many of the women are illiterate - on how to set up and operate a solar power system and basic solar engineering skills. The women then return to their villages to build and maintain solar panels in their village, and in turn they train others to operate the equipment.

Each village decides how much it can contribute financially to the project, usually between $3 and $5 per unit a month, and which women to send to the college. By August 2008, more than 50 villages in six countries had participated in this project.

The key to the success of the solar program, say the college's organizers, is making the villages solely responsible for their own solar systems and invested in the outcome, without any outside help.

With access to the right tools, groups all over the world are providing themselves with light, knowledge, and the ability to excel in the 21st century.

Light up the World

See David Irvine-Halliday discuss his work with the Light up the World Foundation.

How can SPIE Members help?

Bob Freling at SELF is always looking for photovoltaic engineers to help build or set up solar systems. "If there are people with interest in photovoltaics, people who can teach, especially if they have development world experience too. We're always looking for experienced PV installers and trainers," says Freling. "And if they have multi-lingual capabilities, even better."