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Do It Yourself Solar: Energy for Construction and Reconstruction.
Taran Rampersad, 16 Sep 04

diysolar.jpgI had just been writing an article on Do It Yourself Solar when Ivan hit, and I postponed writing it as more information and thoughs came in. It's good by itself, but the context lends itself to a more thoughtful article.

In the wake of the devastation of Grenada by Hurricane Ivan, on an email related to ICT in the Caribbean, someone asked how to recharge a cell phone battery when there is no alternating current (AC). The problem was that there was no AC in Grenada, and someone with a cell phone was staying in communication with friends and family - and passing along information to the list. Of course, 'utter devastation' doesn't take too long to say - but there are other things that must be spoken of. What's needed, and so on.

The immediate answer by someone was to buy a gadget that is a hand crank DC generator for that purpose. Of course, this would be rather difficult to get to Grenada - especially considering that websites throughout the world don't seem to like the Caribbean for some reason - which is another problem. Since I am familiar with Solar Energy (it's a hobby, and my father's present business), I realized that a small panel would do the trick, if only people would stay off the cell phone long enough to charge. That was unlikely, but I pointed out that there's a ground and a DC power source on most phones, and applying DC there would do the same thing. Even a car could be used. In fact, especially a car could be used.

But what if they had solar panels? Certainly, they would be able to use those - solar energy is quite simple to use, though it isn't as entrenched in our cultures as 'sticking the wire into the outlet'. We here at WorldChanging.com are well aware of the uses of such renewable energy - as are most readers. Perhaps the 'culture of AC' has something to do with the results of the nasty War of the Currents - but there's another more important factor. Cost.

While the prices of solar panels have remained fairly constant over the years - relatively speaking they have become cheaper - they are still fairly expensive in areas where they could probably be the most useful - like genetically modified crops. Why is this? Is it because of the materials? No, the cost of materials is relatively the same around the world. The cost of manufacture is the culprit. And this is why Do It Yourself Solar is so interesting.

Get the materials. Build it yourself. From Solar Panels to learning how to attach battery operated equipment to the panels, to even recharging mobile phones. And this last one is what started the very article.

There's even a business opportunity in this, allowing either an enterprise or a non-profit organization the ability to build these panels at a very cheap rate. On the site, they claim lower than the cost of dry cell batteries, which is an impressive claim. Considering the devastation to Grenada's nutmeg crop - which will take 9 years to replace. Perhaps such an industry in Grenada would help? Maybe it is useful to consider, and maybe it will find the right ears. And in many developing nations, the same could be useful as well. Employing people who create useful items for their own country.

And at this time, it almost sounds like an infomercial. It would be except for one thing - Biodesign is a Not-For-Profit Organization - and it's seen successes in some African countries. And the information itself is readily available in the Wikipedia, and other places.

A quick look over the literature I had emailed to me was very interesting. A 6 Volt, 1 Watt solar panel costs about £1; Nickel Cadmium battery packs come at about £2 each. All you need is thin plywood for backing, and the labor to put it together.

While they are careful to explain that these systems are not the same as the more complex solar systems - there are two things to be noted here. The labor is local, and the knowledge becomes localized. This means that the knowledge and creativity of the people within the region can create solutions which transform their world into a place more hospitable for themselves. I imagine solar powered irrigation with aquarium pumps would be one such use, dosing water to plants as needed. Portable computing and telecommunications equipment becomes less expensive to operate.

It could certainly be useful for charging mobile phones - but what about emergency systems within a developing country, such as lighting in shelters? How much energy could be stored before a hurricane using solar electricity? What about Amateur Radio Operators who report after natural disasters? Suddenly, this all becomes attainable by developing nations.

Maybe this will catch on - and be useful to help reconstruction after future disasters around the world. And maybe next time, I won't be on an email list wondering why people don't have the capacity to charge their mobile phones after a natural disaster has destroyed or rendered their infrastructure ineffective.

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Comments

The key concept for the use of solar electricity is battery switching. The batteries can be AA or other dry cells or 12 volt or even button batteries. The combination of solar panel and hand crank or bicycle dynamo allows for charging day and night.

You can buy a Sun-Mate (www.sun-mate.com) solar/dynamo radio/flashlight that can charge both a hard-wired internal battery and removable AA batteries in the battery bay for about $35. And it even includes a short-wave option! That means you have the radio, flashlight, and extra set of batteries you need in times of emergency as well as a virtually permanent supply of low voltage DC electricity - as long as the sun shines, you have strength to turn the crank, and the batteries can hold a charge.

I think this is revolutionary but nobody else seems to get it.

For a model of how to do solar in a Third World country take a look at Enersol's (www.enersol.org) work in the Dominican Republic for the last 20 years. They integrate the solar into the community by making sure there's a local infrastructure to repair and sell replacement parts and by building on the already existing practice of using 12 volt car batteries for electricity.

In the First World I'd like to see a solar product chain that starts with solar jewelry and LED bike lights, progresses through the solar/dynamo and one window solar electric systems for renters leading to whole house and neighborhood systems. These products would provide a platform for the renewable future and build a market that would bring the price down and the availability up for the rest of the world.


Posted by: gmoke on 16 Sep 04

Let's put that $35 US into perspective. In Trinidad and Tobago, $35 US is $220.15 TT. A minimum wage person makes $8 TT an hour. So that Sun Mate means 27.5 hours of work, for those people who make minimum wage here.

In the U.S., as I recall, the minimum wage is about $6 US/hr. That is almost 6 hours of work to get the same thing.

£3 is $33.30 TT. That's a little over 4 hours of work at Trinidad and Tobago's minimum wage.

The economics of the situation should be apparent.

As far as infrastructure, I agree - and more governments should consider such options.


Posted by: Taran on 17 Sep 04

Great post, great comments.

I wonder how cheaply a Sun-Mate-style system could be designed from the ground up, intended for as wide distribution as possible, say in refugee camps?

Anyways, i digress.


Posted by: Alex Steffen on 17 Sep 04

Actually... they can be had pretty cheaply if you buy directly from China/Taiwan. The trick is that you have to buy a few thousand at a time.

Almost all the solar stuff you see on Sun Mate appears to be the same stuff that I see in brochures from suppliers in China ;-)


Posted by: Taran on 17 Sep 04

The difference between Sun-Mate and the Chinese products is that Sun-Mate's solar/dynamo flashlight/radios also charge batteries in the battery bay, although they don't really advertise the fact. None of the Chinese designs I've seen recharge batteries in the battery bay, only the internal hard-wired battery, usually a NiCad.

I am willing to put my money where my mouth is for a project that would produce a solar/dynamo recharger for the Third World as well as the First World.

Also interested in solar bike lights (LEDs) using rechargable button batteries that could be used in keychain lights and a line of solar jewelry (LEDs in bracelets, necklaces, rings, and broaches).

Then we can start on bicycle technologies.

As for the relative cost of a $35 Sun-Mate in the US and Trinidad-Tobago and other places, please remember that a solar/dynamo recharger is for most intents and purposes a permanent supply of low voltage DC power. How many hours of work is that worth?


Posted by: gmoke on 17 Sep 04

The difference between Sun-Mate and the Chinese products is that Sun-Mate's solar/dynamo flashlight/radios also charge batteries in the battery bay, although they don't really advertise the fact. None of the Chinese designs I've seen recharge batteries in the battery bay, only the internal hard-wired battery, usually a NiCad.

Actually, you can order them like that. They just don't normally make them like that. ;-)

As for the relative cost of a $35 Sun-Mate in the US and Trinidad-Tobago and other places, please remember that a solar/dynamo recharger is for most intents and purposes a permanent supply of low voltage DC power. How many hours of work is that worth?

If we're gonna get into that, let's talk about food and shelter too :) You have to understand that the market doesn't necessarily follow logic as well. I've been helping my father out for the last few years and you would be surprised how many people just don't see the value. As we mentioned before somewhere here at WorldChanging, it's just not 'cool'.

The main problem with useful technologies is usually getting people to understand that they are useful.


Posted by: Taran on 17 Sep 04

gmoke: None of the Chinese designs I've seen recharge batteries in the battery bay, only the internal hard-wired battery, usually a NiCad.

Taran: Actually, you can order them like that. They just don't normally make them like that. ;-)

Why not? I would like further information about which manufacturers you are talking about (Everstep Development?) and whatever else you may know about them and their solar/dynamos.

I am serious about putting some effort and money into making a solar/dynamo battery charger into the next mass market solar product - after solar walk lights, calculators and watches. I've been dreaming of an infomercial that sells mass market solar products the same way Ronco sells rotisserie ovens. "Set it and forget it" can become "solar power, day and night."

Addenda: Day and Night was the name of one of the first solar hot water heater companies in the US.


Posted by: gmoke on 21 Sep 04

They (China) don't make them like that normally because there's no business need. Why create a higher cost product that doesn't have a market?

To get them to build things the way you want them, you have to give them the designs, and pay for the manufacturing cost. That's no secret. I'm not going to tell you the supplier, because in a small market like Trinidad and Tobago, knowing a good supplier makes the difference more so than in larger markets - and the information I have is actually part of my father's business. So I can't *tell* you about it, but I can tell you that the information is publicly available but you have to dig for it... Family loyalty should count for something, wouldn't you agree? You have to also develop a relationship with the supplier. That's business.

But I'm not writing about the business aspects as much as the human aspects, and potential business aspects for people within the developing world. I'm getting a few of the kits described in the article above. That's publicly available information (which I highlighted here), and which I will take advantage of using existing materials in Trinidad and Tobago - a part of the developing world. And if I come up with something new, I'll share it.

But I won't give away my father's bread and butter. It's not a very big market to begin with.


Posted by: Taran on 21 Sep 04



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