How to bring electricity to energy-poor communities

By Daniel Kitts - Published on Apr 26, 2016
A German solar panel company is asking its customers to help power delivery drones.

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The Agenda continues its coverage of the Waterloo Global Science Initiative’s OpenAccess Energy Summit Tuesday night with a look at some possible solutions to ending energy poverty.


Even though the world has been transformed by digital technology, 1.1 billion people continue to live without access to electricity. Another billion have unreliable access, affecting such daily life activities as cooking, heating, and lighting. Tuesday’s episode of The Agenda, airing at 8:00 p.m. and again at 11:00 p.m., will discuss how to change that.

People around the globe are using a multitude of strategies to end energy poverty. Here is a look at some of them.

Fuel from farm waste

Small agricultural villages far from electrical grids produce abundant amounts of farm waste, or biomass, that can be turned into electricity. Husk Power Systems, a company in India, is taking advantage of that biomass by using rice husks to power Second World War-era diesel generators for smaller farms. The generators, fitted with biomass gasifiers, create micro-grids in remote areas where rice is a staple crop. According to the company’s website Husk now operates more than 80 micro-grid plants in India, Uganda and Tanzania.

A man filming in The Agenda studio

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Solar-powered drones

Simply getting energy technology to a far-flung community can be difficult due to a lack of roads. Mobisol, a German solar panel installer, is trying to make its products available to more remote areas by asking already-existing customers to power its delivery drones.

The idea is that a drone in need of a recharge would land on a Mobisol customer’s home, hook itself up to the solar panel on the roof, and then fly off to deliver equipment to a customer even further away. In exchange for allowing their home to serve as drone recharging stations, Mobisol customers would get credits on their bills. A company video illustrates the concept.

Pay-as-you-go power

A home solar system can provide energy independence. Yet for the world’s poorest, it can be an inaccessibly expensive up-front investment. Simpa, a company operating in India, borrows the pay-as-you-go model of the cell phone industry to get around this.

Simpa co-founder Michael Marcharg tells ICTworks that one reason for the proliferation of cell phone use in India (there are around 850 million in the country) is many people on low incomes can afford them through pay-as-you-go plans. Rather than signing up for a monthly contract beyond their means, many Indian cell phone users will purchase a set amount of minutes that they can use over days, weeks or months. When they need more minutes, they purchase more, paying only for the cell phone time they need. 

A Simpa solar home system in India requires an initial payment of about US$20 to $40, according to ICTworks. Once installed, users purchase prepaid cards of 50, 100, or 500 rupees (500 rupees is worth about C$10). Using an activation code on the card, customers can access the amount of power they paid for.

“By purchasing these energy credits, Simpa’s customers do not pay for the light only; they also pay down the cost of the product itself. To most people, it takes them three to five years before they can reimburse the full purchase price; but once it is done, they own the solar home system and can enjoy free electricity for 10+ years,” ICTworks reports.

Electricity-free refrigeration

Another way to get around a lack of reliable electricity is to figure out how to do without electricity entirely. To that end, researchers have been developing several versions of refrigerators that can work off the grid.

One such fridge was recently developed by a team of students at the University of Calgary. “First, similar to an elephant's ear, the machine uses a funnel to catch air and bring it into a pipe immersed in fluid. The fluid around the coil evaporates, cooling the air inside. Then, it moves to a below ground refrigeration chamber to chill the food,” reports the Huffington Post. The invention is illustrated in a video.

Food spoilage is a huge problem around the world, so cooling systems that require no power to operate could help reduce food insecurity in remote areas. Other attempts to help bring refrigeration to those without access to reliable electricity include a solar powered refrigerator, a fridge that keeps things cool using dirty water, and a thermos that can keep vaccines chilled for up to 30 days.

Read more: 

The real effect of unreliable electric power on quality of life

Does the planet need an 'energy miracle'?

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