Blogs tagged as renewable energy

  • Water in Turkana

    June 30th, 2014

    Around this time last year I had the privilege of spending time in the remote villages of Lorengippi and Lobei in Turkana, northern Kenya.

    women in Lobei collecting waterIt was a time for celebration. Practical Action had recently installed a solar powered water pump in Lobei capable of pumping out thousands of litres. The community was clearly flourishing thanks to new school toilets (which had dramatically increased attendance amongst girls), a newly restored market garden where crops were being grown and easy access to clean water for all families.

    Meanwhile the village of Lorengippi rang out with song as I witnessed the first gallon or so of water being pumped out of the newly installed solar-powered pump. This community still faced all the problems Lobei had recently overcome, but the overwhelming feeling was one of optimism that a reliable supply of water would bring greater health, wealth and happiness.

    Fast forward a year, and the situation isn’t so positive. Since my visit barely a drop of rain has fallen, meaning pastures have failed and the pastoralists who live and work in the region face disaster. In response, (thanks to an agreement Practical Action staff helped broker), most of the men have taken the cattle over the border to Uganda where the pastures will keep their cattle – the only source of income & wealth in the region – alive.

    However, although the communities we work in have been left with clean water, sources of food have been harder to come by. The departure of the men-folk has left thousands of women and children with nothing. Our work means that in the communities in which we have installed pumps, people will no longer die from dehydration, but goats and chickens have perished and and left those who are left almost entirely dependent on food aid. Fortunately, a well-co-ordinated response from the regional government has meant that disaster has been avoided.

    In years gone by, severe droughts like this year’s were once in a lifetime events. Now they are happening once every decade. The situation in Turkana underlines how we need to confront the causes of climate change and proves that no one solution can ever solve a global phenomena.

    Using solar power this project will provide 45,000 people with access to safe, clean water.


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  • A tale of tradition, technology & tobacco

    May 23rd, 2014

    Ethnic communities living in remote areas are not only geographically isolated, they are technologically isolated too – that’s what I thought while going to the hilly part of Bangladesh lately. And I was wrong!

    IMG_1600I was visiting Bolipara – a remote place in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) of southern Bangladesh, a region famous for its hills, rivers and forests. With 13 ethnic groups, cultural diversity is also an attraction.

    While talking with the Khumi, the Tripura and the Marma ethnic communities separately, I asked them to tell me three things that they were happy to have. Water points, treatment from local traditional healers, and schools were mentioned by more than one group. These were logical choices given the water, health and literacy related challenges they often face even at the end of the MDG-era. To my surprise, the other two things made them happy were mobile phone and solar home system.

    I calculated that there was roughly one mobile phone for 12-16 people in Bolipara. Maintaining a mobile phone in Bolipara is, however, a big challenge. To top-up your credit, you may have to walk up to 9 km to the nearest market. Since there is no electricity supply from the national grid, you also need a solar system in your house or at least in your village to charge your phone. Although mobile phones are cheap (as low as $30), solar home systems are not (minimum price $350). So, solar panels on the thatched roofs of quite a few traditional houses made me happy.

    In this age of ICT and renewable energy, I was very pleased to see ethnic people of the CHT were no longer technologically isolated and were improving their lives with advanced technologies. This is what Technology Justice is all about!

    (A quick note: Technology Justice can be defined as the right of people to decide, choose and use technologies that assist them in leading the kind of life they value without compromising the ability of others and future generations to do the same.)

    IMG_1601But, by living in one of the poorest areas of the country, how are the people of Bolipara  paying for solar home systems? In fact, unprecedented blanket cultivation of tobacco in this formerly forested area is allowing them to earn quick, good cash from large companies. Tobacco may be destroying the local environment and traditional agro-systems; it is also supporting good investment in technologies to make traditional life comfortable.

    This recent technological transformation of Bolipara represents a complex interaction among culture, poverty, private sector, environment and technology. Development is about making balanced choices. When the gap between the haves and the have nots is vast, it is often hard to advise the poor what they should do and shouldn’t do to make their lives better. Fighting technology injustice is tough, but achieving technology justice is probably tougher.

    Haseeb Md. Irfanullah leads the Disaster Risk Reduction and Climate Change Programme of Practical Action in Bangladesh. He is available at

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  • Kenya plans to build massive solar plants. Is it great news for everyone in Kenya?

    January 27th, 2014

    I heard recently that Kenya has announced plans for major investment in solar power, with the aim to produce as much as 50% of it’s total energy needs from solar by 2016.  The plans involve some $1.2 billion of investment, as reported in the Guardian , which would see the development of nine large solar generating stations.   Even if they achieve only half of their plans it would be an amazing achievement.

    It’s fantastic that there are more and more of these major efforts to invest in renewable energy.  As momentum builds, it’s sure to help reduce costs, and build confidence which will attract future investment for renewables.  This can only be great news for global targets for reducing carbon emissions.

    These are exciting times, and I am sure few people would argue that more and more solar power plants around the world are anything other than a great thing.

    However, there is one thing that I fear remains missing.  Most of Kenya’s population are not connected to the electricity grid.  Many millions live many miles from a grid, and in current projections, it will be decades before most of them are connected.  Mega solar schemes like the one above rarely address this critical issue.  There is a well proven answer to this challenge – min-grids, such as this one pictured.

    An off-grid Solar System in Kenya

    An off-grid Solar System in Kenya

    I blogged about one mini-grid which Practical Action are supporting in Malawi, and there are many such min-grids popping up around Africa.  Unfortunately, although there is widespread recognition that over 50% of future electricity connections should be off-grid, we’re yet to see major investment in off-grid schemes anywhere in the world.  Until we do, then we will continue to see billions of people left without access to modern energy, and held back in their development.

    So of course $1.2 billion of investment into mega solar schemes in Kenya is great news.  But $1.2 billion of investment into off-grid solar schemes – now that would be brilliant!

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  • 5 things to make life better

    January 16th, 2014

    aWhat would your life be like without lighting or power? And can you imagine living without a toilet?  This was the reality for Ravalina and her family, who live in the Canchis region of Peru, way up in the Andes, making a living from selling the wool spun from her herd of alpacas.

    Being without these basic services, which most of us would regard as essentials, made life pretty tough.  It affected all aspects of her life – work, health and education. 

    Supported by innocent foundation

    The innocent foundation supported this Practical Action project financially and they have made a great video about our work – take a look at the Chain of Good.

    Here are the five things that have made a huge difference to Ravalina’s life.  I certainly couldn’t imagine living without any of them, but this my order of priority for me.  Do you agree?





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  • Electricity for Christmas

    January 2nd, 2014

    Like quite a lot of British people today is my first day back at work after a long Christmas break.

    Over the holiday period, there were serious storms, and thousands of people had their homes flooded, and many people went through days with no electricity.  Luckily I was not one of them, but having lived a number of years in rural Africa I know what life without electricity can be like.  Smoky kerosene lanterns giving poor light; nothing to charge your phone; expensive batteries for a radio; and a charcoal stove for cooking. It’s not easy.  In the UK it will have been cold too.  It can’t have been an easy time for anyone.

    Late last year, I had the chance to visit a project we have been running in Malawi, in which we were helping to bring electricity to villages which are many kilometres away from the grid, and probably decades away from being connected to it.  A small electricity grid is powered by a small hydro-electric station, which takes water from a small river close to the village, and provides a low power connection to people’s houses.

    The technology, which includes taking water from a perennial stream, and passing it through a small hydro-power station is well proven, in other parts of the world – simple, reliable, sustainable.

    Battery charging helps to delivery energy where it  is most needed

    Battery charging helps to delivery energy where it is most needed

    When I was there, I was reminded how transformational electricity can be, by a poem that a young student had written and recited at a small celebration to mark the opening of the scheme.  He talked about the immediate things we might all think of – lighting to do homework, power for phones, radio, TV, even a computer for the school.  However, it was interesting how the new electricity grid meant he could feel proud of the village, and how government teachers & doctors would be happy to be posted there, and not seek a transfer back to the town at the first opportunity.  “We’re now a place with a future”, he said.

    Being based on a sustainable source, this system should run for many years to come, and of course emits no carbon dioxide either.  There is plenty of potential for similar small hydro-electric plants in other parts of Malawi, so we are keen to share our story, and see the approach replicated by others.

    This is perhaps a long way from power cuts in the UK, except that it’s interesting to reflect on how much a difference that an electricity connection can make.

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  • A MEGA initiative in Malawi

    May 16th, 2013

    Practical Action are working with our partners in Malawi to establish MEGA – a sustainable and ambitious social enterprise delivering green mini-grids to poor rural communities.

    It is estimated that 587 million people in Africa alone are without electricity.  And as population growth outpaces the number of people getting access to electricity on the continent, this number continues to rise.  Furthermore, it’s estimated that 55% of people without electricity will be best served by decentralized technologies such as mini-grids and standalone systems.  A step-change is needed to meet this challenge; with greater focus on off-grid technologies, innovative business models and smarter investment.

    Malawi and Mozambique 022The MEGA initiative is in Malawi, where 85% of the 15 million population lives in rural areas, of which only around 1% has electricity – there are 12.6 million people, countless businesses and numerous health centres and schools without electricity.

    The government has an active rural electrification programme, although the focus on national grid extension and the all too limited resources leave many areas in Malawi with little hope of having electricity in the near future.

    Decentralized energy programmes and business models that can achieve scale and sustainability are few and far between in sub-Saharan Africa – and Malawi is no exception.

    Many installed mini-grid schemes in developing countries are plagued by failures and struggle to sustain operations.  Sound financial plans and real diligence are required to ensure that funds are available for the day that essential component breaks and needs replacing.  Skilled technical expertise to diagnose problems and obtain and install replacement parts is another critical element that is particularly challenging in remote rural areas.

    MEGA – Mulanje Electricity Generating Authority – is tasked with stepping into this gap.  MEGA will bring together professional, financial and technical expertise that can ensure project sustainability and attract public and private investment.

    MEGA’s business plan and financial model has been formulated with the support of DFID’s Business Innovation Facility.  Practical Action is leading on the micro-hydro mini-grid technology, and the local partner MuREA is facilitating community engagement.

    MEGA will operate micro-hydro mini-grids, initially with one existing 75 kW scheme and plans to develop many more.  The initiative has received support from OFID that will allow it to install schemes in two more communities by 2014.  Mount Mulanje is the highest mountain in Malawi and the wettest in Southern Africa – an ideal place for micro-hydro technology.

    The MEGA ambition is to bring electricity and development to poor communities in Mulanje.  We want to demonstrate that mini-grids are a viable option that offer a real opportunity to tackle energy poverty in Africa.

    MEGA social enterprise is on the cusp of being registered as the first independent power producer in Malawi – watch this space!

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  • Meeting the energy needs of the poor

    March 4th, 2013

    How many PhD students does it take to change a lightbulb?  I don’t know but I heard plenty of suggestions last week!

    Attending the Micro perspectives for decentralized energy supply conference, I engaged in discussions and listened to  presentations, many by postgraduate students, about ways to address the energy access in the developing world.  

    I experienced frustration and inspiration in equal parts.  On the one hand,  hearing so many bright young minds focused on this important issue was wonderful.  But I was baffled to hear each one repeating the same  apparently surprising outcome from their research – namely that technology interventions were more successful when they had been developed in consultation with the community and with the energy needs of the users taken into account at the design stage.

    Energy enables students to study for longer

    Energy enables students to study for longer

    Why was this a research finding?  Working at Practical Action this is the approach we start from every time.  Doesn’t everyone?  Apparently not!   Maybe it’s something people have to discover for themselves?   But it does seems a waste of effort when we should be concentrating on the best ways of improving energy access for the 1.3 billion people who don’ t have any.   

    While there is no one single  solution for the world’s energy problems , it’s encouraging to know that there are plenty of people and organisations out there finding their own solutions – community by community.

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  • Whatever happened to the hydrogen economy?

    February 19th, 2013

    One of the questions that was asked the other day was whatever happened to the hydrogen economy?
    It was a popular subject about a decade ago when it was thought that we would all be powering industry with hydrogen energy but things seemed to have gone very quiet since then. The problem is that the infrastructure change will be huge; it will take lots of money and time to achieve so here we are still waiting. So are there things that we can do now that will work and provide us with clean and convenient energy?
    Is locally produced hydrogen on demand a realistic alternative to massive infrastructure development for industrialised economies or could this technology be used for developing economies? Some people are promising this new technology will sidestep some of the difficulties faced by other hydrogen technology. Will innovations such as this make clean energy accessible to everyone on the planet?
    Innovation in the energy sector is abundant at the moment but many of these developments are still in the research stage and are some way from becoming used on a large scale. Which technology will win out and make a real impact on a significant scale is hard to tell at this stage.
    One of the technologies that is under development, as reported in New Scientist & at EPFL, at the moment is turning solar energy directly into hydrogen without first generating an electrical current using rust as one of the main components. It seems like a strange approach when we are constantly trying to eliminate rust from technologies but a thin layer of iron oxide could be just the thing to generate hydrogen directly from sunlight in a more effective way than the traditional photovoltaic cell and electrical cathode.
    Can these technologies be applied to less developed regions of the world? Well, it is too early to tell as they have not been proven in any situation. However we move ahead the demand for energy is on the increase, it enables people to have a better quality of life.
    It seems that future energy options are going to be more divers and generally more complicated than they are now.
    I was looking at some of these options while editing the book A Handbook of Small-scale Energy Technologies  which looks at the more established technologies such as micro hydro and solar thermal technologies. These approaches have been have been tried and tested and can be implemented now with predictable results.
    Of course, each technology needs to fit the particular circumstances but a little analysis of any situation will determine what is required. For many the hydrogen economy is a distant future but energy access is much closer.

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  • Much hope, little action?

    June 18th, 2012

    20 years after the 1972 Earth Summit, carbon emissions have increased by 40% – partly due to the massive increase in air travel – and according to WWF’s recent Living Planet report, global demand for natural resources is now 50 per cent higher than the planet’s regenerative capacity. Small islands are now at high risk from rises in sea levels due to global warming.

    50,000 are forecast to attend Rio, and 194 countries will be represented there. US President Obama isn’t going – but he’s sending Hillary Clinton, and UK Prime Minister David Cameron isn’t going – but he’s sending Nick Clegg. And there lies the dilemma: our commitment to addressing global environmental issues is finely balanced against the global financial crisis, which is keeping both world leaders busy.

    Cynics expect little from the Rio+20 conference. Countries are forecast to sign up to an Outcome Document which will advocate a shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy – but it’s unlikely to be legally binding. We hope that UNEP will take on the role of global environmental policeman – but without legal sanction, how will that work? We hope for new Sustainable Development Goals – around access to sustainable food, water and energy for all – talking about energy is new; it’s become an increasingly vital part of all our lives. It’s becoming clear that total energy access could transform the lives of poor people, and without it, they’ll be excluded from the modern world.

    Wind power in Sri Lanka; children in Sri Lanka show their delight with wind power

    So – a lot of hope; will there be any action? The outcome agreement will be called “The Future We Want” and if we really want to make that future a reality, governments will have to take on the perhaps unpopular task of getting us all to make changes that will affect our lives and the world economy: no more flying to Thailand on holiday? Less choice of food in the supermarket? The global aero and food industries won’t like that… development organisations have a vital role to play in helping people understand what we need to do to save the planet. If Rio can move people’s attention away for while from financial crises in the developed world, and back to bigger issues like the long-term survival of the planet, then it will have been a success. The most important thing is what happens next!

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  • Girls needed for Clean Energy jobs

    ”We need All of humanity not half of it to work on the clean energy revolution”

    That’s the opinion of David Sandalow from the U.S. Department of Energy at the Women, Innovation and the Clean Energy Future reception held yesterday at Lancaster house, as part of the Clean Energy Ministerial.

    Whilst there are some incredible women working in the clean  energy sector, such as Juliet Davenport, CEO of  Good Energy, these role models are few and far between.   Lack of understanding amongst young women of the opportunities available as well as a lack of women in middle management positions taking that next step up were discussed as the main reasons.

    Yet it was felt by both the  women and men present that women do bring  a different perspective to the sector so should be encouraged to be a bigger part of it.

    So please do encourage your female students to find out more about this interesting work that is key to our future.

    To see how  members of Practical Action who work on clean energy and other technologies for the developing world got their dream jobs please visit our careers page for a poster and case studies.

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