Remote Microgrids Bring Electricity and Income to Rural Areas: Kilowatts for Humanity

Nov. 16, 2015
Kilowatts for Humanity has run into some surprises as it brings remote microgrids to rural communities. For example, sometimes rural residents actually prefer kerosene and candles over electricity.

Remote microgrids are bringing electricity and income to rural areas through Kilowatts for Humanity, a non-profit organization that began as research projects at Seattle University.

In one project, for example, in Filibaba, Zambia, Kilowatts for Humanity built a 2-KW solar-powered microgrid that serves as an electricity kiosk. In addition to being able to power a few homes, it’s set up to allow residents to charge cell phones and batteries that can be used for lighting, says Steve Szablya, co-founder, Kilowatts for Humanity.

The remote microgrid provides electricity 24 hours a day using solar plus battery storage. “There’s solar that goes through our standard charge controller and inverter and that’s connected to a bank of batteries. It’s day and night usage,” he explains.

One of the goals of the project is to establish a self-sustaining business for residents. The money residents spend on electricity is used to pay the employees who work at the kiosk.

“We provide everything for the setup of the microgrid. When residents charge their cell phones, for example, they have to pay something nominal to charge them. That money goes to the business which pays employees,” says Szablya.

Initially, that project was designed to provide lighting for students, he says. Kids can come in with small, 5-17 amp battery boxes and charge them, then take them home. The battery boxes can be used with two small LED lights that can light up a home, he says.

But, interestingly, Kilowatts for Humanity discovered that residents only wanted lighting if it was very low-cost because they can use candles and kerosene lamps for lighting.

... residents only wanted lighting if it was very low-cost because they can use candles and kerosene lamps for lighting.

“They told us they’d rather have no light than expensive electricity,” he says. Instead, they wanted to charge items that candles and kerosene couldn’t charge–radio and television, for example.

“We realized we needed to add accessories into the mix–a fan in the house, for example…they can’t do that with candles or kerosene,” he says.
Meanwhile, as part of the grant-funded organization, Seattle University students use data monitors to keep an eye on the kiosk and ensure everything is running smoothly. They’re notified if something–a meter, for example–isn’t working, then work with local vendors to fix problems.
“This avoids the problem of having units sitting there broken,” Szablya says.

This project has gotten a big boost from a local engineer, Likonge Makai Mulenga, wh0 started an NGO to establish rural electrification solutions. Kilowatts for Humanity identifies and helps train entrepreneurs like Mulenga.

Kilowatt for Humanity’s goal is to use remote microgrids to provide electricity and income to other communities by training other entrepreneurs like Mulenga. To date, the organization has installed three microgrids ranging in size from 2 KW to 5 KW.
We’d like to learn about other remote microgrid projects in rural areas. Please post the information in the comments section below or on our LinkedIn Group, Microgrid Knowledge.
About the Author

Lisa Cohn | Contributing Editor

I focus on the West Coast and Midwest. Email me at [email protected]

I’ve been writing about energy for more than 20 years, and my stories have appeared in EnergyBiz, SNL Financial, Mother Earth News, Natural Home Magazine, Horizon Air Magazine, Oregon Business, Open Spaces, the Portland Tribune, The Oregonian, Renewable Energy World, Windpower Monthly and other publications. I’m also a former stringer for the Platts/McGraw-Hill energy publications. I began my career covering energy and environment for The Cape Cod Times, where Elisa Wood also was a reporter. I’ve received numerous writing awards from national, regional and local organizations, including Pacific Northwest Writers Association, Willamette Writers, Associated Oregon Industries, and the Voice of Youth Advocates. I first became interested in energy as a student at Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut, where I helped design and build a solar house.

Twitter: @LisaECohn

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