Pay As You Go Solar in South Kenya

I saw an interesting article this weekend from CNN World’s website.  A company called Eight19 has created a pay-as-you-go solar technology called IndiGo that is being deployed right now in Kenya.  Check this out, this is Simon Bransfield Garth, the CEO of Eight19.  I knew I would like this company as soon as I realized what “Eight19” meant – it’s the time that a ray of light from the sun reaches Earth.  Here’s Simon:

Here now is a quick video of a man named Samuel talking about the benefits of his Pay-As-You-Go Solar installation:

This is some pretty cool stuff.  The solar technology that Eight19 prides themselves on is a low-manufacturing-cost solar cell printed on a plastic film.  The reason that they can have products that are so low cost is that the printing method benefits from being able to use the high-speed roll printing technology that exists in the solar printing industry.  From the Eight19 website on the benefits of printed solar technology:

So, when the customer purchases the IndiGo package for installation, they get an Eight19 solar panel that connects into the IndiGo device.  The gist of the system is this:  without the customer “topping up” their IndiGo device via their cell phone, the device doesn’t charge the battery inside the device.  From the IndiGo website:

IndiGo is an affordable solar lighting and battery charging system that brings low cost energy to off-grid communities. With IndiGo, users put credit on their solar cell, just as they would on a mobile phone. Power from the cell then charges the  battery in the IndiGo box, making electricity available for lighting or charging other devices, such as mobile phones. The top-up codes are sent securely to owners’ mobile phones as text messages. Without the codes, the system does not generate electricity.  The IndiGo 2.5W solar home lighting and charging system includes: A solar panel and IndiGo box with a charge controller and battery; an LED lamp; an adapter lead for most popular mobile phones; connecting cables; and two, one-day top-up cards.

For most Americans who haven’t been overseas or in Canada, with pre-paid cell phones, you buy minutes on what’s commonly called a Top-Up card.  No different than the ones in the USA, they’re based on minutes, all that.

So the idea here is that people in South Kenya will not have to use kerosene lamps inside their places at night to do what they have to do needing illumination.  This is a tremendous thing; one of the biggest increases of our technological development has been increasing the CRI of the light we use to do things like read and develop.  With this implementation, the people in South Kenya will be getting  some seriously higher CRI than kerosene-powered sources.  This cannot be a bad thing, right?  Hell no.  People that live in kenya are no different than people who go to Yale.  They have the same potential as all of the rest of us, especially when given the opportunity to grow with the rest of the world.  No matter where you grow up, as long as you are given the opportunity to develop, you will succeed, especially if you apply yourself.

Something that I found interesting was found in the comments of the excellent CleanTechnica article on the IndiGo system.  A user named Bob_Wallace (THE Bob Wallace? Or the Shareware guy? I kid, I have no idea) posted some email exchanges he had with Simon from Eight19.  The bolded markings are things I’d like you to pay close attention to in the paragraph:

“The cost and payoff time varies a little by country as you would expect (for example there are variations in transport costs, distribution costs and local taxes between locations). In Kenya the weekly fee is 100KSH (approx $1.10) for our “duo” product with 2 lights and phone charging.

After a period of time, the product is deemed to be paid up and the customer has the option to buy the product out for a small fee or upgrade to a larger system. Again, this period varies a little between country but is normally between 18 and 24 months.

Our initial estimates suggest that typical users save in excess of $2/week with the kerosene and phone charging costs they save, with some users saving much more than this.”

In reply to a question about how upgrades work…

“People return the old system and get a new one (with the exception of the lights/wiring unless it needs replacement, as it is pointless to take down old one only to put the same thing back). We then refurbish and reintroduce the old systems. The weekly fee for the new larger systems takes into account the fact that we have recovered some value from the old system so they pay less than if we had to cover the full cost of the new system.”

Rough math says that Eight19 is able to get people in ownership of a basic lighting/phone charging system for somewhere just above $100US.

($1.10 x 52 weeks x 2 years = $114.40)

After two years they should have free power for a few years. The battery will need to be replaced after a few years and the LEDs after several. The panel should last a lifetime or more.

This is something to check out – basically a person using the IndiGo system uses it for about two years before they’ve paid it off, at the tune of about $114.40 USD.  The figure is for their “duo” product with two lights and a phone charger that has several charger tips for different phones.  After two years they have a few years of free solar electricity conversion.  Now granted it’s only at about two watts, but it’s free where before they’d have to pay to get kerosene to charge their stuff and see in the dark.  I think this is a pretty cool idea, as does the organization SolarAid, who has partnered with Eight19 to do this project in South Kenya.  From the SolarAid press release on the subject:

Thanks to the work of SolarAid and other players in the sector over the last few years, solar lights and phone chargers have been available for some time across Africa, but the initial cost is beyond the reach of many potential customers. By offering solar power as a service, without high purchase costs, these customers can now access clean electricity for less than their current spend on kerosene. But more than this, the availability of affordable electricity stimulates social and economic development too.

I think this is a pretty cool thing that’s happening.  When you think of the costs though, I think you should just remember that the Kenyans aren’t paying in USD.  One Kenyan Shilling (KES) is worth about 1.2 pennies USD.  Consider that when you consider the cost.  For example, right now a watt of solar if you just buy the photovoltaic panel is between $2.19 USD/W (for a 60W panel) up to $5.44 USD/W (for a 130W panel).  With the rest of the gear you’ll have to buy (cables, batteries, control), you’re looking at about $8.00 USD per watt of generated electricity.  I mean, come on though – after about the first six months, collecting solar using a device and a PV panel rather than taking it from a grid situation is going to pay for itself.  The sun is free, kids.  When some company or some government starts saying hey dummies!  we’re going to charge you for solar power by making you pay us for collecting it, then I am going to freak out and be really loud about it to the world, and then the world needs to kick some corporate or government tail.  Right now, no matter where you are, you’re paying for the devices that help you collect and store electricity, not for the solar energy itself  A lot of people make cracks online about how “solar should be free,” and they are totally right.  There is nothing that stops you from inventing your own solar collecting system for your own usage; money perhaps, but as long as we’re Capitalists, money will always be an issue.  Eight19 is a company, and they’re doing what a company does, and their particular skill is making and selling solar power collecting systems.  The power companies have done the same thing essentially, you’re just paying for them to make the power, and using their lines for them to get it to you.  In the US, we pay for this power from them by the kilowatt-hour, at an average of $0.118 per 1000W/h.

What do you think?  Do the costs add up?  The prices in Kenya are about comparable to American prices according to Numbeo, if not maybe a bit cheaper overall on average.

Thanks to USEIA, IndiGo Off-the-Grid, The Times, Triple Pundit, and Numbeo!

Cleaning Solar Panels – Yeah, There’s a Gadget for That

If you read the news with regards to lighting, power grid, and renewable energy, you’re going to read a lot about solar.  Solar companies, solar panels, solar panel efficiency, and all kinds of other stuff that has to do with using the sun to generate electricity.

Here’s something wacky – nobody ever talks about cleaning their solar panels!  I mean, it’s probably not something you have to do each weekend, but as grime, dirt, and pollution build up on them, they do need to be cleaned off in order to efficiently capture the sun’s rays.  German company Schletter GmbH has just released news of their crazy new photovoltaic power washer for exactly this problem that nobody knew we had – solar panel cleaning!

I’ll be honest – most of the people I know who either manage or own PV installations just clean them with a freaking hose and some tap water.  But Schletter is going to be changing that in April 2011.

Hold onto your horses, folks.  This thing is a solar panel cleaning party animal!

Wow. Now THAT is some solar cleaning! I think. At least that’s what I’ve heard. All I can really say is that I didn’t invent this thing, but it seems cool! Probably a lot easier than the 20-foot-long handle with a carwashing brush on the end, huh?

Thanks, CleanTechnica!

How It’s Made – Photovoltaic Panels (That’s Solar, Holmes)

Another awesome How It’s Made video – making SOLAR PANELS!  This is such a technical process, and I think they did a great job of capturing the gist of it.  Check out the video!

Solar iPods? QUE?!

There is news out right now that Apple has filed for a patent on adding photovoltaic cells to their iPods.  That’s right.

I almost put this in the What? category, but I am staying strong that maybe it’s a possibility.  Can you imagine?  I mean, I have replaced the battery in every iPod that I have ever owned.  It’s not hard to do, and it’s certainly cheaper than buying a whole new iPod – who does that anyway?  Doesn’t the Apple Store gouge you for changing the battery, or do they just replace it?  That hardly seems resource efficient.

I wonder how long it’s gonna take to charge this little puppy – I can see myself forgetting my charger right before I have to do some programming or something where I need to really focus “because I figured I would just charge it in the sun.”

Interesting.  I say GO APPLE! on this one.

Check out the schematics, from CleanTechnica:

The skinny on the street is that this patent will cover basically all of their mobile devices, from Shuffles to iPhones.  Crazy.

Qnuru Solar Landscape Lighting

I have my friend Anjeanette (b-b-b-benny anjeanette) to thank for this discovery – Qnuru Landscape Lighting.  Qnuru is Tom Joyce’s baby – Tom’s got a pretty thick resume with credits as a 2003 Macarthur Foundation fellowship, gifts to Kofi Annan, a PBS documentary, and exdibitions from Moscow to Boston.  Tom is a blacksmith, artist, and designer.

Now, the Qnuru line:





From top to bottom – the Aquila (pole style solar lamp), the Cumuli (suspended cloud-ish free-hanging fixture), the Talus (square ground level solar light), and the Turnabout (two-hemisphere ground level solar light).  There are two other models not pictured here, but found on Tom’s Qnuru Solar website.  Tom’s designs maximize illumination using LED engines and quality design to minimize internal reflection while masking the multi-crystalline PV collector from sight.  And they’re good looking, too!

q5 q6

Thanks, Anj!

World’s First Thin Film Solar Tracker

The first solar tracking system made from thin film photovoltaics has been installed in southern California.  It’s not a huge installation, only 419KW, which is the second phase installation of 1.6MW system in the San Joaquin Irrigation District.  This system will save the district almost $400,000 in yearly utility costs.  Cool.


Here’s the press release from Colorado company Conergy:

(MANTECA, CA – April 6, 2009) – The solar energy experts at Denver-based Conergy Americas and officials at California’s South San Joaquin Irrigation District (SSJID) have installed what is believed to be the world’s first single-axis solar tracking system featuring thin-film photovoltaic cells.The 419-kilowatt system went live in late March.It is the second phase of a 1.6 MW solar energy solution that will save the irrigation district nearly $400,000 a year in utility costs, allow it to reap millions of dollars in state cash incentives and stabilize customer costs in the midst of a state-wide water crisis.

The project – known as the Robert O. Schulz Solar Farm — will also provide a unique cost-benefit analysis on how two distinct solar energy solutions – crystalline panels and thin-film – perform under a range of climatic conditions.

SSJID is located in Manteca,between San Francisco and Yosemite National Park. While many may not know its location today, it’s about to put the practice of thin-film solutions on a single axis tracker on the proverbial PV map.SSJID provides irrigation water for 55,000 acres in the surrounding area.The Solar Farm will handle nearly all the power needs of the nearby Nick C. DeGroot Water Treatment Plant, which processes 40 million gallons of water per day for 155,000 residents and businesses in the cities of Manteca, Tracy, Escalon and Lathrop.

“The application of thin-film on a solar tracking system as a way to optimize energy output in perennially-dusty or overcast areas is generating a great deal of excitement not only among those in areas with conditions similar to California’s Central Valley, but among economic policymakers and environmental stewards in Washington, D.C.,” said SSJID General Manager Jeff Shields.“We’re eager to continue our work with Conergy to bring this solution — and the important data it’s generating in our cost-benefit analysis — to light,” he added.

The trend in enterprise solar emphasizing the economic benefits of photovoltaic technology is particularly important for water authorities like SSJID.California is in the third consecutive year of a drought that has compelled Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger to declare a state of water emergency, which can mean water rationing and rate hikes.

“The project’s main goal was to stabilize electrical costs, which can spike substantially in summer months given local time of use (TOU) metering;” said SSJID Utility Systems Director Don Battles.In addition to the project’s $400,000 annual electric bill savings, the solar energy systems provide the district with a hedge against rising utility costs.And, he adds, both projects are hooked into the state’s electrical grid, which means the district will be able to sell its surplus, peak-time energy (another precious commodity) back to the local utility.

SSJID is also receiving $6 million in cash incentives from the California Solar Initiative program, designed to stimulate solar markets by providing cash incentives of up to 30% of system costs for businesses, public agencies and home owners who go solar.

Providing the SSJID with additional ROSI (Return On Solar Investment) are the valuable side-by-side performance metrics the systems are providing. Phase 1 features 6,720 Conergy 175-watt crystalline modules mounted on a single axis solar tracking system.Tracking systems can optimize peak-time output by as much as 15% over similarly-sized fixed-mount systems.They do this by incrementally adjusting panel angles to follow the trajectory of the sun.This project optimizes its solar tracking capabilities using software whose origins are based in military tracking technologies.It took four months to install.

According to Conergy’s Western U.S. Project Director David Vincent, market-tested First Solar thin-film modules were selected for the Phase 2 tracking solution because they perform at a lower cost-per-watt than traditional crystalline. “Thin-film is a much more cost-effective way to generate power – and it can outperform monocrystalline in areas prone to hazy, overcast conditions — or in industries that generate dust or high degrees of air particulates,” said Vincent. “Early indications show the output per DC kW of First Solar thin-film is about 10% higher than that of crystalline,” he added. Installation time was three months.

To help SSJID monitor system output, Conergy installed equipment on the inverters that sends power generation information to monitoring and reporting company Fat Spaniel Technologies. This allows Battles and the SSJID team to log onto the Web and gauge system performance from their business offices – nearly 22 miles west of the actual solar arrays. A bonus is that through the Fat Spaniel Web site, they’re also able to compare the 1 MW Phase 1 SSJID tracking system with several systems, among thema 1 MW fixed-axis roof-mount system on a fruit-packing house in nearby Hanford, California – a system that Conergy also installed.

The availability of data has generated a friendly competition. “We can look at our production and their production on any given day and see how we’re tracking,” Battles says. “We’re generally 15 to 18 percent ahead of them. And in reality, Hanford probably has better sun than we do.”

The Conergy- SSJID team’s innovative approach to renewable energy and the Robert O. Schulz Solar Farm case study are providing illuminating new data that will open the floodgates of solar opportunity for water authorities and agri-businesses across the U.S.

“Those being served by the forward-thinking SSJID team are enjoying the benefits of one of the most advanced PV projects in the world,” said Vincent. “The South San Joaquin Irrigation District’s desire to find new ways to process and deliver their water as cost-effectively as possible is a boon for its customers — and a bellwether for water authorities everywhere, particularly in these economic times.”