DIY Solar Lighting project - making progress.
Here is an interesting article on a Do it Yourself Solar Lighting initiative being advanced by a professor and students at Cooper Union University in New York City.
DIY Solar Lighting Systems for Developing Nations?
Developing nations learn to create their own light using simple designs developed by students at The Cooper Union.
Currently there is desperate need for economic lighting systems that can be assembled, installed, and maintained by the millions of rural poor who live in the remote regions of the developing world. We have known for years that the traditional light sources such as lamps with cotton cloth wicks are expensive to run, provide poor quality illumination, and degrade the air quality. But the question is, how can we replace these units with an eco-friendly option?
We could always just raise money and ship these developing nations sustainable flashlights or lanterns to use, but that would only create dependency. The ideal solution to offer light, is to teach these nations how to build these units, maintain them, and repair them themselves when necessary. This is exactly what Professor Toby Cumberbatch and his students at The Cooper Union, located in New York City, have set out to do with their solar light project.
The objective of the project is to provide solar powered light systems for rural communities using white-light-emitting diodes and photovoltaic panels. The team has designed, constructed, installed, and tested these system which do not require any specialized tools or highly skilled labor to produce. Each light utilizes the maximum amount of the communities locally available components to build, maintain, and repair, so that they may learn to take care of their own needs. "This is not aid," says professor Cumberbatch, "Aid does not work."
How does this all work exactly? We turn to Professor Toby Cumberbatch of Cooper Union for those answers and more:
Professor Cumberbatch, please tell us more about the solar panel project?
Toby Cumberbatch: As I'm sure you know, there are lots of organizations scattered around the world trying to do the same thing. Provide light for the people who have no light. We think that we are a little bit different in the sense that our aim is to provide these lighting systems in the form of a kit, which can be assembled out in the bush.
We call them self-assembled systems. We tried to make the design as simple and as straight forward as possible, so that people without a lot of expertise could actually put the kits together. At the moment we do not supply a housing. People have to make that from whatever they have available (coffee tins, milk tins, old plastic bottles). We have systems in Ghana, Kenya, and Rwandan.
Our design has a central sub-charging station. This means, we offer these communities 50 separate lantern units, but only one central charging station to recharge their batteries, which consists of one solar panel and one battery. The lanterns will run for three days between each charge. A lot of the other systems being put into place have their own recharge panel, but we chose to go with the central charging station, and so far it is working great.
Our intention, is by the end of the year, we'd like to have enough knowledge to actually sell these systems. The idea is that we turn it into a social business so that it makes enough money to sustain itself. Any profits will go back into the business itself. Our ultimate aim is to design ourselves out of the whole thing, so that it can run without us.
What is the availability of the parts being used for these lighting systems?
TC: The actual electronics, the light emitting diode, the circuit board, the chips, and the solar panel are all being supplied by the US. We are looking into each of the three countries where we have these systems to see what we can source locally. One of the things that we do is buy batteries locally. The actual lantern housing, the car battery for the charging station, and the batteries for each of the individual lanterns we buy in the country.
Is the idea to eventually turn these businesses over to the community?
TC: Yes, the last thing we want to do is be a charity. When the people buy the lantern, they have to pay for them at cost price. That price has to include a certain profit so that the system can run on its own.
What are these lanterns mostly being used for?
TC: Most of the countries we are involved with are closest to the equator and basically get 12 hours of sunlight. The children and adults can use these for their studies in the evening. One of the communities I have just been to see, I heard a very touching story from a man. Without the lanterns he wouldn't have been able to find his goats, who had wandered off in the middle of the night. These lanterns are in great demand when people have any kind of social occasion. The people with the lanterns are invited to wedding and funerals and things like that.
How can our readers get involved with this project?
TC: I wished you would have asked us this in the beginning (laughs). They could help work with us to design a better lantern. Also the light distribution system needs improvement. One of the things about these lanterns, is they have to be engineered in such a way that they are robust, but we also want the efficiency of this system to be as high as possible, which means getting the light energy out as efficiently as possible. Another way they can help, is if they know of a community that needs one of these systems, let us know and help us work out a payment plan. We can be reached through our blog.
Do you have any final thoughts?
TC: One of our big passions is that this is not aid. Aid does not work and at the same time one of the ultimate goals to teach people who have nothing, is that you do not have to rely on somebody else to give you everything and make everything for you. You can do a heck of a lot more than you think. We are hoping to act as a catalyst to people to be able to do something like this, and through it realize that they can do a great deal more than they think.
There is no waiting for NGO's or the World Bank to come along, instead we come along and say, here are the bits, make it yourself and help us design it in the way that you want it. Then it becomes theirs and they can move forward from there. We have actually taken some of these lighting kits into the middle of the bush in Ghana where you have to walk the last few hundred yards because there is no road. There is no electricity, they have never seen anything like this before, but within a day, they were putting together their own circuit boards.
We provide a very detailed set of instructions on how to assemble the boards, all the tools that you would need (drills, files, etc.). We also include instructional videos and put them on an iPod. A lot of these remote places might actually have a TV that runs on a battery, but rather than messing about on DVD's, we can take it on an iPod which can bump around on the roughest terrain and survive. This way they can actually look at somebody doing this if they don't understand the directions.
I do not think this is anything particularly intellectual. It is all pretty obvious. I just don't know why nobody have ever thought of this before!