Solar Tech in Africa

Green lanterns and green radios.

2 min read

I've been following some interesting developments in green tech, using solar power, in Africa.   First to Mali.  This West African nation is famous for its extreme poverty and brutally hot Saharan plains near Timbuktu.  But a small group of volunteer geeks made it famous for something else:  green radio.  

Based in the capital city of Bamako, IESC Geekcorps, a sort of Peace Corps for techies, is building 11 solar-powered radio stations in northern Mali.   The goal is to use solar energy to build specific equipment able to use low-power.  Their solution is ingeniously scrappy, and effective.  The team built a 150 watt transmitter from scratch, powered by just six batteries and six solar panels.  With a 40 foot mast, the transmitter can broadcast as much as 30 miles, and it’s rugged enough to set up in even the most hostile desert conditions.  The Geekcorps Mali is also applying its start-up chops to building a rural computer center, powered by just one solar battery and solar panel and using a measly 20 watts.   By choosing the equipment and focalizing on an adapted technology they used less energy than other commercial solutions.

In Ghana, the green lantern isn’t a superhero, it’s an innovative way to bring environment-friendly lighting to the neediest of people.   With roughly 40% of the population off a power grid, many residents have had to rely on high-polluting and relatively high-cost kerosene lamps for light.   But the country has become a shining example of a craft solution:    inexpensive photovoltaic lamps.  

A small engineering company in Accra called Deng Limited has been expertly training dealers and technicians to install systems around the region.   The small lamps are easily assembled using tiny modules that store up electricity using sunlight, and last for as long as three years.   More than 6000 solar lanterns are now in use, and the company runs a training center to help keep up the action.    Their work scored them an Ashden Award for Sustainable Energy, presented by Al Gore.    Some in Ghana – as well as surrounding areas such as Kenya and Rwanda – are going further by distributing kits with which residents can build their own solar lighting.   A group called the Solar Panel Project provides the essentials – including the light emitting diode, the circuit board, and chips – and the residents use household vessels, from coffee cans to plastic bottles, to house the parts.  

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This photograph shows a car with the words “We Drive Solar” on the door, connected to a charging station. A windmill can be seen in the background.

The Dutch city of Utrecht is embracing vehicle-to-grid technology, an example of which is shown here—an EV connected to a bidirectional charger. The historic Rijn en Zon windmill provides a fitting background for this scene.

We Drive Solar

Hundreds of charging stations for electric vehicles dot Utrecht’s urban landscape in the Netherlands like little electric mushrooms. Unlike those you may have grown accustomed to seeing, many of these stations don’t just charge electric cars—they can also send power from vehicle batteries to the local utility grid for use by homes and businesses.

Debates over the feasibility and value of such vehicle-to-grid technology go back decades. Those arguments are not yet settled. But big automakers like Volkswagen, Nissan, and Hyundai have moved to produce the kinds of cars that can use such bidirectional chargers—alongside similar vehicle-to-home technology, whereby your car can power your house, say, during a blackout, as promoted by Ford with its new F-150 Lightning. Given the rapid uptake of electric vehicles, many people are thinking hard about how to make the best use of all that rolling battery power.

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