Aug 2, 2011

Noble: Power in Rural Villages

I came across this article on USA Today early this month, and I felt it should be the first story to win the “Noble” title. The story is one I have heard repeatedly since I first started really paying attention to renewable energy implementations across the globe. Millions still do not have access to electricity despite electrical distribution systems being in place for well over a century. Rural villages in Africa and India are not considered high priority by the local utilities so they end up getting wired into the grid, but never getting switched on.

The article I found talks about the efforts of Selco Solar Light Pvt. Ltd. I have never heard of the company personally, but they have installed over 125,000 solar panels in the villages of Karnataka state (India). Before their efforts, the people were living by night using kerosene lamps, which is the same technique people were using before Edison introduced his electric bulb for mass production. Kerosene lamps carry the same problems now they did 100 years ago: noxious fumes, fires, poor light quality, and wind susceptibility. 
                                                                Figure 1. Sample Solar Installation in India, Courtesy of USA Today

India’s government has been aggressively trying to expand the country’s energy production to match its exploding population and infrastructure. Current estimates say that they must quintuple their electricity production over the next 25 years to keep up with the demand. As a result, more companies are looking to decentralized off-grid power stations as a solution. The Indian electric utilities are seeking a 4x increase in off-grid power (around 200 megawatts) over the next two years.

The entire reason I picked this story though is for the human element. Technological advancements have improved the lives of the human race dramatically. The story mentions how, with the addition of solar power, the residents of rural villages have voiced that they feel safer at night. One 14-year old said that the fumes from the kerosene lamps used to make his eyes water and he was unable to read his books at night. Consequently, he had fallen behind in his classes. With the new solar lamps, he is now back on track and keeping up with his classmates.

Too often I feel people get bogged down in what technology can do for them rather than what technology can do for the world. It has always been my goal to be involved in something that has the impact these micro-grid solar installations have had. Through a company headed up by one of my co-workers, I have been aiding in a solar light design for villages in India. Rather than using a central solar panel, the light makes use of smaller panels to charge an internal battery for a short period. The batteries run a portable torch light for moving around at night. It may be small right now, but someday I hope to do more.  


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