Energy Kiosks - Providing Power to Rural Africa

07 December 2010

Interview with

Daniel Choudhury & Christopher Hopper, E.quinox

Diana -   Across the developed world, we tend to take it for granted that we can simply plug in a kettle or a computer, and there's electricity on the tap.  But in many parts of the world, this simply isn't an option.  Much of rural Africa is off grid.  And as electricity grids are expensive to build and maintain in places where they do exist, the electricity can be prohibitively expensive.  But Meera Senthilingam has been to find out about a new and surprisingly simple solution which is being pioneered here in the UK, to take affordable power to those that need it.

Meera -   Rural electrification is one of the biggest challenges facing the developing world with billions of people worldwide living without access to electricity.  Countries such as Rwanda have tried to tackle the problem by increasing access to the grid.  But due to expense, maintenance, and infrastructural challenges, the problem still remains.  As Rwandan local, Simon Bataringaya explains.

Uganda - mobile phone charging serviceSimon -   Electricity is a big problem in Rwanda.  Lighting around is a big problem.  Security problems comes up with it.  Hours of working are limited due to that short period of time of lighting.  According to our figures, the census that was made towards the end of 2009, 7 per cent of the population of Rwanda have access to electricity.  More than 90 per cent of the population of Rwanda lives in rural areas.  For those, only 0.1 per cent have access to electricity and to be quite clear, the total number of the population is more than 10 million.  So electricity is ever still a problem to Rwanda which limits their development.

Meera -   Simon Bataringaya in Rwanda.  Currently, residents of Rwanda overcome these limitations by burning kerosene and candles to provide light as well as paying to use generators at markets.  But now, a team of engineering students from Imperial College London have developed the project E.quinox.  Solar powered energy kiosks located in rural areas that charge and provide battery packs to locals.  The first kiosk was located in the district of Manazi, with another updated design opening in the district of Bugesera.  Vice Chairman of E.quinox, Daniel Choudhury explains more.

Daniel -   The energy kiosk concept is a centralised charging station.  The latest solar kiosk has 10 solar panels on the roof.  Simply put, the solar panels will charge these battery boxes.  People will take them away and once they've used it for various applications, whether it's lighting, charging their mobile phones or radios, they'll bring them back and the energy kiosk will charge it back.  Solar panels are wired through charged controllers then they reach a large storage battery.  What this allows is that if you have rainy days or foggy days, and you don't have enough sunshine, it provides a source of backup power.

Meera -   You have examples of battery boxes in front of us, starting with the original box and also, the current box that's being used.  The main difference I see between them is the size.  Tell me a bit more about the actual battery boxes.

Daniel -   So the original battery box is 12 ampere-hours in size and the new one is about half that size, 5 ampere-hours.  The old one provides 12 volts of DC supply and the new one provides 230 volts through an inverter which is included inside the box.  What this means is that the new box is basically a portable plug, so you can plug-in just about anything that's generally low-powered.  So whether it's your mobile phone charger or simply the lamps we provide, it'll be able to power it.

Meera -   So the setup in Bugesera as you mentioned, how many battery boxes are provided there and how much power is generated as a whole?

Daniel -   The Bugesera Solar Kiosk has 10 solar panels which have 65-watt peak each and we serve 120 households using our battery boxes.

Meera -   It all is largely kept going by the fact that you charge a fee to users.  So what is this fee and how was that actually set?

Daniel -   People will pay an initial deposit of about £10 and a 2 monthly recurring fee to charge the battery boxes.  The money generated is used to pay for the shop keeper and for maintenance costs within the kiosk.  We based this price on kerosene and people's kerosene usage so that it doesn't add up on their cost, but replaces the cost of buying kerosene for their energy needs.  So while kerosene can be used for lighting, our battery boxes provide an additional service of say, charging your phones.  Everyone has two mobile phones and the network is sufficient there, but they just need a point to charge their phones.

Meera -   Daniel Choudhury, Vice Chairman of E.quinox Energy Kiosks.  The technology Daniel mentioned however isn't limited to solar power, as the team have recently adapted their design to tap into other renewable energy resources, as well as tap into the grid.  Chairman Christopher Hopper told me more.

Electricity pylonChristopher -   At first, it might seem counter-intuitive: Why do people by the grid need battery boxes? They have the grid!  But the fact is that quite a lot of people don't have access to the grid even though they live close.  In fact, some people live under grid line and they live in the dark after 6 o'clock.  There's two main reasons for that.  Number one, often people can't afford the grid connection, number two, some people could afford it, but they live too far away from the grid.  Close but not close enough to be connected.  So we think that by putting grid-connected battery charging stations along the grid, you can kind of extend the reach of the grid.

Meera -   But as well as this main source of energy, you're also now exploring the potential of hydropower in the future.

Christopher -   We want to develop a flexible solution.  We know that energy kiosk is a flexible solution for electrification.  So particularly, Rwanda has a lot of hydropower potential.  It's a very hilly country.  In fact, it's called 'Land of a thousand hills'.  Quite a lot of rain as well, so there's many little rivers that we can make use of.  When I talk about hydropower, I don't talk about huge dams, big power plants, but rather really, really small scale hydro generation - picohydro.  So a couple of hundred watts of continuous power would be enough to power a small community.  What's particularly attractive is that hydro gives you around-the-clock power.  So if you combine that with a buffer battery for example, you can really charge a lot of small battery boxes to cater to local demand.  So basically, if you compare it to a solar powered kiosk, for example in Bugesera we have 650 watts solar power, so 100 watts of continuous hydropower would be the equivalent to power a smaller sized community.

Meera -   And providing this portable power by manipulating different methods of energy generation could pave the way for the future of all rural electrification.

Christopher -   The classical way of grid electrification doesn't really work.  Just like people in Africa, a big part of the continent has skipped the whole landline connection for telephones.  We think this battery box concept can be the equivalent of mobile phones in power distribution because it's a much more flexible solution than hard wiring every single house.  Studies from the World Bank that say that even if every household was connected to the grid, more than 50% couldn't even afford it to pay for it.  So, you really have to rethink the way you approach the problem.  In the end, we hope to really scale it up because it's not just about Rwanda, but rather you want to develop a versatile solution that can be replicated on a large scale to really achieve impact and to change people's lives.


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