IEEE CSI: Empowering Remote Off-Grid Villages through Sustainable Energy
By Robin Podmore
Vice President IEES PES New Initiatives and Outreach
Co-Chair IEEE Community Solutions Initiative
Mou Riiny fled his South Sudanese village when he was just 8 years old. He joined thousands of Lost Boys who were thrust into the violence and chaos of a civil war that tore them away from their families and left them stranded in refugee camps.
Through the efforts of international volunteer rescue organizations, he and many other Lost Boys were ultimately brought to the United States, where they were raised in foster families. Here, Mou earned an electrical engineering degree at the University of San Diego and launched a solar energy company, SunGate Solar Solutions.
Today, Mou has returned to his native village in South Sudan to help those who were left behind build a better future for themselves. With around $17,000 in seed funding from IEEE Community Solutions Initiative (CSI) and another $250,000 of funding from the Dunn Family Charitable Foundation, SunGate installed photovoltaic solar panels that generate electricity for the people around Mou’s village, called Thiou. Mou provides 10 community charging stations, each serving 100 portable battery kits (PBKs). The villagers lease the PBKs so that they can have clean light at night (instead burning noxious kerosene), charge much-needed cell phones, and keep businesses operating in the evening.
Providing electricity to remote communities around the world is part of IEEE CSI’s mission, which started as a joint initiative of the IEEE Nuclear & Plasma Sciences Society (NPSS) and the IEEE Power & Energy Society (PES). CSI was co-founded by Ray Larsen of IEEE NPSS and Robin Podmore of IEEE PES and is now being broadened to other IEEE Societies in a partnership with the IEEE Foundation. A dedicated fund for IEEE CSI is held and managed by the IEEE Foundation, a qualified 501c3 charitable organization, at http://www.ieeefoundation.org/.
“We believe that renewable energy and technology can be used to improve the lives of people in the world’s poorest populations,” CSI co-founder Dr. Robin Podmore said. “In a way that is sustainable not just from an energy standpoint, but also an economic one. People need affordable, renewable power in order to both save and earn more money and to create the kinds of jobs that will lift them out of poverty for good.”
Roughly 1.5 billion people in the world live without electricity. IEEE CSI’s goal is to provide access to basic electrical services for 50 million of the world’s most impoverished people within 10 years. A new breed of entrepreneurs, with Mou Riiny as one of the early trail blazers, will be the foundation for ensuring that IEEE CSI achieves that goal.
IEEE CSI started in Haiti in 2011. It partnered with Sirona Cares Foundation (SCF) to distribute 15 SunBlazer solar PV community charging stations through 2012 as a response to help Haitians recover from the devastating January 2010 earthquake. Local entrepreneurs used the stations to serve up to 80 families and businesses.
IEEE CSI in essence donates a micro-utility business with PV equipment and standard operating procedures that generates revenue for the in-country partner and its franchise operators. The lessees of each Portable Battery Kit (PBK) and Home Lighting Kit pay for their own electricity from the savings on not burning noxious kerosene for light and charging neighbors’ cell phones. Each in-country partner takes on the challenge of growing the business to reach a million people at an estimated six people per home.
SCF is now on track to serve more than 9,300 homes and businesses and 60,000 people with a clean and sustainable supply of electricity. One orphanage saved enough money using the solar chargers that it was able to provide the children with a new home. In 2013, Michelle Lacourciere, founder and President of SCF, received the prestigious Jefferson Award, which was founded in 1972 by Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Senator Robert Taft, Jr. and Sam Beard. It remains America’s highest honor for public service, a “Nobel Prize for public service.”
In Cameroon, IEEE CSI with the support of SD Meyers is developing a program with Dr. Martin Niboh and the Torch Bearers Foundation, where the SunBlazers and PBKs will be manufactured locally by a cadre of entrepreneurs who will be trained as micro-utility entrepreneurs and operators.
In Nigeria, IEEE CSI partners Ifeanyi Orajaka and Chuka Eze, founders of the Green Village Energy Project (GVEP), were awarded a prestigious U.S. African Development Foundation and General Electric prize of $100,000 to build utility micro grids. Store owners, such as Mrs. Felicia Eberechi, are thankful for their clean light. “I have been in business for about 30 years and have used candles and kerosene lamps at night,” Mrs. Eberechi said. “It was difficult to see and sell my wares; and made me issue incorrect change for purchases. I usually closed my shop at 8 pm.” Since electricity was introduced into her community, Mrs. Eberechi has been able to stay open until 10 pm. Customers can see her wares and she can make correct change. Her daily proceeds have doubled.
In Kenya, a team led by Seattle University (SU) has installed a community charging station with a 2.8 KW solar PV system and two 1 KW wind turbines. This provides electricity to the Kristy’s Cape Academy school which charges PBKs for the local community. Head master Simon Warioba is oversees the operation. In 2014, the team of senior SU Electrical and Computer Engineer students Patrick Berg, Michael Koppi, Andrew Mewborn, and Daniel Nausner, along with faculty advisors Steve Szablya and Dr. Henry Louie, received the grand prize and an award of $25,000 from the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES). Alstom engineers Vincent Van Acker and Avnaesh Jayantilal supported the project and assisted in obtaining financial sponsorship from Alstom Foundation. This is a pioneering example on how IEEE CSI hopes to work with manufacturers and their engineers in the future.
In Purros, Nambia, Mark Sickles, a retired power system operator from Chugach Electric and an avid hiker, climber and kayaker, is working with his fellow world adventurers from New Zealand and Germany. They have funded and are building a schoolhouse with PV solar panels and have installed 70 solar home systems for this remote community.
IEEE CSI’s journey into the Ladakh region of Northern India started in 2012 when Alex Podmore and Mathew Gibbons from New Zealand spent most almost 12 months as guests of Engineers without Borders – India as roving IEEE CSI ambassadors. Alex and Mathew met with Pranav Mehrota, chair of EWB Birla Institute of Technology and Science, Pilani – Goa. Pranav has subsequently become a modern IEEE CSI “Johnny Appleseed” in promoting IEEE CSI LightCycles and LightSticks as educational tools to get students interested in STEM throughout India.
Pranav subsequently linked up with Paras Loomba, founder of Global Humanitarian Expeditions, and joined Paras on an expedition to the Third Pole Education Base in the remote village of Leh in Ladakh. They installed a PV solar micro grid and clean solar lanterns, and worked with a local craftsman to build a pedal-powered Light Cycle. Ladakh is so remote that it could literally leap frog the application of Internal Combustion Engines and go directly to an all-electric transportation system. Also, with more light and power in the remote homes, it has tremendous potential to expand its tourism business.
The empowering impact of clean electricity is dramatic as evidenced by Mou Riiny: “It’s impossible to convey in words just how important IEEE CSI is. It is a very exciting Initiative that is changing a lot of lives. In South Sudan electricity is a new phenomenon and having access to it is quite transforming. It enables us to bring the town to the people, which means they don’t have to go anywhere, they are empowered to stay where they are.” But this is just the start. CSI will build on the base of empowerment and savings from clean electricity to improve the education and job skills within the villages where SunBlazers are installed. We call this initiative “Learning Beyond the Light Bulb”. IEEE CSI is partnering in this initiative with the Posner Center for International Development and Regis University in Denver, led by Dr. Dan Wessner. The Posner Center houses over 70 NGOs that can support develop of entrepreneurial community businesses such as clean water, sanitation, clinics, telecommunications, foot bridge building and community centers of learning. IEEE CSI has a space at Posner where it aims to help develop the Global Classroom and spearhead both technical and social learning in communities based on their own expressed needs and goals. These holistic goals align with many others expressed at the recent IEEE Global Humanitarian Technology Conference (GHTC).
IEEE GHTC presenters are working on many innovative projects, including remote diagnostic medical services with 2G and 3G networks, so EKGs, sounds, and images can be sent to medical professionals. This will keep patients from traveling miles on foot when they’re ill; and allow an expert to evaluate the sound of the newborn’s first cry to identify perinatal asphyxia through a smart phone application.
Entrepreneurs and educators working in remote villages like those mentioned, and many other members of IEEE CSI, work mainly from the heart. IEEE CSI members volunteer large amounts of their time and services. We are dedicated professionals – engineers, educators, professors, managers, business owners, doctors, entrepreneurs, CEOs and heads of NGOs with experience in assisting developing countries – who believe that global poverty can be eradicated, at least in part, by taking a systems approach that focuses on providing financial and human support as well as involving the people we are helping in developing their own solutions.
But if IEEE CSI is going to reach its ambitious goals, it’s going to need more micro utility entrepreneurs in the fields and villages.
“Maybe you know someone who came from an impoverished village and is now in the United States getting a STEM education,” Dr. Podmore urges, “Or who has gotten an education, and wants to take those skills back to their native country. Maybe you ARE that person.”
In the words of Ray Larsen, CSI Founder and Co-Chair, “In the large view, IEEE CSI seeks NGO or non-NGO partners that will embrace the IEEE CSI community empowerment business and education models and take them to scale. This is very challenging and requires the same kind of partner evaluation that a venture capitalist would do. We are in fact Angel Investors who hope to seed companies with pilot programs that can lead to venture capital to grow to scale on their own,”
In the early development phase, IEEE CSI plans to provide up to $20,000 in seed money for a pilot project, and follow that with up to $100,000 to expand upon the successful pilot programs. IEEE CSI also plans to provide $5,000 to $10,000 of funding for an ambassadorial assignment in the field or as an internship. All of these plans depend upon a successful fundraising campaign under the IEEE Foundation Signature Program.
IEEE CSI also needs volunteers to serve from their own locations. There are openings on the following committees: fundraising, technical, marketing/communications, and partner development/selection.
To date, IEEE CSI and its NGO partners have raised and obtained commitments for more than $3.2 million from IEEE societies, USAID, UNDP and other foundations. But much more is needed to reach its $10-million/four year goal. Donations can be made at https://www.ieeefoundation.org/donate. In the designation drop down, select IEEE Community Solutions Initiative.
IEEE is dedicated to the success of IEEE CSI, which was recently named a Signature Program of the IEEE Foundation. Signature Programs enjoy the support of IEEE Foundation partners to augment IEEE CSI’s efforts to raise philanthropic dollars. They earn this designation by advancing technology to benefit humanity – a mission that is taken very seriously.
“We’re honored to have been chosen,” Dr. Podmore continued, “As it will not only help us leverage our work and our fundraising efforts, it will also enable us to reach more entrepreneurs who might just need a boost to realize their dreams; more children and families in need of greater educational resources; better medical care; and more young engineers who want to make a difference in the world.”
To learn more about IEEE CSI volunteer opportunities, please visit www.communitysolutionsinitiatives.org