Robin Podmore, VP New Initiatives and Outreach

NovGovBd-RobinIEEE Smart Village Global Outreach Program:
Empowering Off-Grid Villages through Sustainable Energy Businesses

More than 1.3 billion people – nearly 20 percent of Earth’s population – lack access to electricity. It is difficult to fully grasp how this limits their world, their future and the lives of their children. Nearly 97 percent of those without electricity live in sub-Saharan Africa and under-developed areas in Asia, according to the International Energy Agency.

This situation affects every aspect of life that we in the developed world take for granted. It precludes or constrains adequate healthcare, education and economic development. Altruism demands that we act by providing the means of self-sufficiency to those who lack it. But our own self-interest also suggests sharing technology for the good of humanity. A lack of access to electricity is too often accompanied by a lack of education, irrigation, health care and jobs, creating a vulnerability to famine, war and other disasters that lead to international crises. We invest now or we pay later.

The United Nations certainly has well-intentioned programs to address this situation, as do various countries. But top-down efforts take a great deal of time, they encounter inefficient bureaucracies and often they fail to gain traction among the people who can benefit most.

As a IEEE Foundation Signature Program, the IEEE Smart Village Global Outreach Program has rapidly evolved its thinking and programs over the past year to answer this pressing need. Providing electricity to those without it is indeed part of the process, but only a part. We now believe we can provide long-term economic development benefits by fostering in-country entrepreneurs who will create businesses around sustainable energy.

I’ll touch briefly on where we’ve been so you can better appreciate our latest thinking on how to tackle one of the world’s most pressing challenges.

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IEEE Smart Village’s origins

Today’s IEEE Smart Village program grew out of the IEEE Community Solutions Initiative (CSI), whose work I reported on in this space one short year ago. Under the CSI program, we designed a community charging station known as SunBlazer, which could power portable battery packs to provide light in off-grid or disaster-stricken villages. If you’ve ever experienced a lengthy power outage, you can appreciate the benefit of lighting the darkness.

The team of Ray Larsen, IEEE Smart Village co-founder and co-chair, Nextek and Sirona Cares brought this technology to Haiti in 2010 with IEEE support, in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake. The larger, longer-term vision of IEEE Smart Village has grown from this initial success. To produce real change, we discovered that we needed to do a lot more than just replace smoky and unhealthy candles and kerosene with clean LED lights. We call this effort “Going beyond the light bulb.” Our goal is to also support communication, education, clean water and agriculture and health care that will in turn, create jobs and, in time, prosperity and self-determination. Our close alliances with the IEEE Humanitarian Ad Hoc Committee, IEEE SIGHT groups and the Global Humanitarian Technology Conference have been very supportive of these broader goals.

Thus, for several reasons, we’re expanding the SunBlazer with portable battery kits to include 24-volt DC microgrids, 220-volt AC microgrids as well as solar home systems. When the first SunBlazers were installed in Haiti five years ago, options didn’t really exist. Then the market produced alternatives to portable battery kits. When solar home system options became available, local preferences naturally gravitated to them over carrying a 15-pound battery pack around. So as the market and local expectations have shifted, we have had to adapt.

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An expanding vision

Our vision grew as well. These more ambitious energy technologies will have greater immediate impact on larger numbers of people and, more importantly, they will provide greater business opportunities for local entrepreneurs, with greater influence on local economic development. Once villagers have light and charged cell phones, they want clean water, a fan, a TV set, a job or even a business. So IEEE Smart Village is also about education, creating jobs and businesses. It’s about creating entrepreneurial role models to be emulated.

IEEE offers fundamental organizational and engineering strengths that can accelerate and amplify IEEE Smart Village’s goals. Through the power of digital communications and IEEE’s network of local chapters and conferences we can learn from our local village entrepreneurs and better meet their needs. So we’re looking at the actual end user of off-grid electricity and how to optimize the value chain, from powering the consumer equipment, understanding how and when the equipment is used for, to grasping how it might fit into a bigger system. As an example, we can lease energy efficient DC fans and DC TV sets for less cost than powering inefficient legacy AC appliances. We can encourage development of new technologies, for example, to minimize the startup demand of an electric motor fed by PV panels to power a sawmill. This list goes on and on.

We need to greatly increase the engineering talent that is devoted to solving the problems of the world’s most needy people. Everyone is now realizing that this in not just a charitable effort but it also makes good business sense. A billion people living on around $2 per day is a $2 billion dollar a day market. Our goal is to encourage open-source, low-cost and modular products that can be maintained and even assembled in the country of deployment. Once we standardize on open source software for control and monitoring, that minimizes overheard and locals would pay mainly for hardware costs. This vision is quite a leap from simply replacing kerosene lanterns with clean light. Even as we move to supplying solar home systems, our mantra is that we are running a long-term service business and not a product-sale business. We encourage our Smart Village Entrepreneurs to build long term relationships with all of their customers. When a villager becomes a Smart Village customer, they are joining a world-wide organization that will help them with clean affordable electricity, communications, education, job opportunities and career development. IEEE has a long history of working in these areas with developed world professionals – now we are extending our support to entrepreneurs and villagers in the world’s least developed communities.

I’d like to briefly touch upon the fundamentals of IEEE Smart Village to provide a well-rounded view of our most current work.

The mission, the vision

Let’s begin with our mission: “IEEE Smart Village empowers off-grid communities through education and the creation of sustainable, affordable, locally owned entrepreneurial energy businesses.” Our vision is similarly straightforward, if ambitious: “To bring basic electrical and educational services to more than 50 million people by 2025.”

To accomplish our mission and vision, we are working to make the energy technology and fundamental business model as universal as possible for interoperability, economies of scale and cost-effectiveness. We are designing complementary modules for system expansion. But when it comes to how these tools are applied, we’re equally adamant that local communities use them for their own self-empowerment goals. We are also working on educational tools and processes by which empowered communities, entrepreneurs, volunteers and support staff can share insights that benefit everyone involved.

Technology options

In terms of technology, let me provide just one example. Our colleague, Paras Loomba, founder of the Global Himalayan Expedition, has worked to provide electricity to Himalayan villages. Loomba is sharing his designs and is having systems manufactured in India at affordable prices. By teaming with IEEE Smart Village, our entrepreneurs are able to leverage their buying power and obtain lower prices for batteries and solar panels. As we standardize the bill of materials for various system designs and put out requests for proposals from our IEEE-affiliated partners across the globe we can get even more competitive pricing. No other organization besides IEEE is so well-positioned to see and influence what’s happening from the Himalayas to the plains of Uttar Pradesh to sub-Saharan Africa to Haiti. Not only are we leveraging the power of open source software and open designs, we’re promoting open business models and open economic development models. Our goal is to give our local village entrepreneurs a range of options to adapt to whatever makes technical and business sense based upon local income levels and local loads.

We also have an entrepreneur in Nigeria, Ifyeani Orajaka, whose entrepreneurial company, GVE Projects Ltd., is delivering 25-kilowatt systems with 220-volt AC distribution to serve 200 customers, so we’re covering a range of needs from 50 watts to 25 kilowatts with as many common components, interfaces, monitoring and control technology and payment schemes as possible. The idea is to create components that build on each other, with little or no obsolescence. If a villager starts out with a 50-watt solar-home system with an 18-amp-hour battery, when the grid eventually reaches them they can just plug their system into the grid. There are big advantages for local battery storage so that customers can conserve energy to meet their critical night-time loads. With local battery storage, we avoid the situation where wealthy residents running air conditioners use so much energy that school children from poor families do not have clean light to study at night.

In our new model for energy, economic development, education and empowerment in off-grid villages, the technology components really need to not only interoperate but to be “poly-modular” – that is, accommodate newer technologies that are developed as add-ons, as well as serve myriad devices and needs based on the availability of sustainable sources of electricity.

Entrepreneurial business models

In terms of the business model, Orajaka’s case is illuminating. This past summer, Orajaka reached an agreement with Nigeria’s Bank of Industry to provide a more than half-million dollar (USD) loan over 15 years at single-digit interest rates to achieve his and IEEE SVI’s goals to build three 25 kW solar photovoltaic-based mini-grids in three rural Nigerian communities. IEEE SVI provided 10 percent of the project cost, or just under $65,000 USD. The project’s first phase is scheduled for completion by late 2015. The cost to rural Nigerians will be affordable and spread over time. A connection fee will cost $20, monthly payments are $11.25.

As you read this article Orajaka has electrified the first village with 25 kW of solar PV generation to serve 200 homes with a 220 volt AC microgrid. The expectation from Orajaka and Nigeria’s Bank of Industry is that he’ll extrapolate that model over five years to light up 200,000 homes and serve a million people.

How will we share lessons learned, best practices and our successes? The IEEE Global Classroom at Regis University in Denver, run by our colleague, Professor Dan Wessner, links Smart Village colleagues working in off-grid villages around the world with their colleagues in North America. The case study approach is used, where all the students contribute their unique knowledge to solving relevant sustainable development problems. We’ll use the same equipment to push vocational, sustainable technology instruction on how to deploy humanitarian engineering and develop it through local marketplaces.

We have a pilot program right now with 27 students from nine countries, four continents. A third of them are engineers. Two-thirds of them are in other development sectors, including health, education and agriculture. We’re devising a teaching method of equal benefit to them all. We’re exploring the appropriate technologies and content to link diverse realities so developing and developed communities can work together and incorporate the results into our curriculum.

Next steps

What’s next? It is imperative that we consolidate our gains and continue to build a foundation of more standardized and interoperable products, services, processes and business models. At the last IEEE Global Humanitarian Technology Conference we learned how far along our partners in off-grid communities have gotten. Now we can say “Look, here are the entrepreneurs. Here are the business models. Here are the components. Here’s where they’re being built.”

I close with a call to action. IEEE Smart Village’s vision won’t become reality without a significant investment in human capital and expertise and we have pressing needs that you or someone you know could meet. Frankly, we need help to make this globally ambitious, grassroots undertaking a success – for everyone’s sake. We need volunteers willing to travel to least developed communities around the world and identify and encourage local entrepreneurs. We need people for marketing, fundraising and operations. We need people who can travel for emergencies, in the aftermath of human-induced and natural disasters. We need people on support committees for fund development, marketing, outreach for the selection of new entrepreneurs, operations for monitoring and supporting existing entrepreneurs, technology development and education. If you would like to volunteer for any of these areas, please fill-out our online questionnaire for volunteers.

IEEE Smart Village is literally lighting a path to the First World for off-grid communities in the Third World. IEEE must assume a leadership position in this effort to spread sustainable energy, light, communications, education, job creation and empowerment. Jump onboard and help us. This is the very essence of IEEE’s mission to develop technology for the benefit of humanity – every single one of us.

I am writing this column as VP of New Initiatives and Outreach for IEEE PES, but IEEE Smart Village is truly an IEEE-wide volunteer, team-driven effort—with initial support from NPSS and PES and now a growing number of societies. Ray Larsen and I would like to thank all the volunteers and local micro-utility entrepreneurs who are contributing to make the vision of IEEE Smart Village a reality, and also directors and staff of IEEE, IEEE Foundation, IEEE NPSS and IEEE PES along with our newly enlisted societies.