Check out this slideshow of pictures from Africa. I tried to embed the video but WordPress would not let me, so the link will take you to the Solar Empowerment Network to see the video. Shown are installation photos from our FLAME installation in Guinea Bissau, a SolarAid project on a primary school in Tanzania and pictures of SolarAid’s Sunny Money microsolar product. The music is the Black Eyed Peas singing a John Lennon song.
After leading the installation of the 14kW system for FLAME Ministries in Guinea Bissau I flew to Dar Es Salaam on the Indian Ocean, to connect with my old friend Mason Huffine, who is Operations Director for Solar Aid’s programs in Tanzania. Solar Aid is a U.K. based non-profit organization (NGO) working to fight poverty and climate change through implementation of solar PV technologies.
Check out a video about Solar Aid:
Solar Aid in Tanzania has two main PV programs, ‘micro’ and ‘macro’. The micro-solar program is building hardwood framed 1 to 2 Watt PV modules, AA rechargeable battery packs and LED light fixtures. Solar-Aid is developing the same basic product in each of the four countries where they have operations (Tanzania, Kenya, Malawi, Zambia). The materials and product design varies slightly between the different countries but they all have LED globe style fixture with a long enough wire to be hung from a central point in a room or hut.
They call their product “Sunny Money” because when used to replace lanterns burning expensive kerosene they quickly pay for themselves and will produce free electric light for many years. The other solar LED lanterns available in parts of Africa are mostly molded plastic lanterns from India or China, some with integrated PV cells for recharging. The Sunny Money system includes enough wire length to allow the panel to be outside in the sun, the battery pack in the shade and the lamp suspended from the center of the room. Solar Aid has found that rural Africans prefer their system to the cheaper plastic lanterns because the hanging light looks more like the grid powered lighting they’ve seen in cities.
Another cool thing about the Sunny Money system versus those others is that the panel can be used to power a radio directly from the sun and they are working on a cheap circuit to be able to also charge cell phones. With these additional applications the Sunny Money is more than a solar lighting system, it is really a nano-scale home power PV system.
The Sunny Money system is intended to be a cleaner, cost-effective alternative to the village-made kerosene lamps like this:
or like this one made from a recycled light bulb. I think this is kind of an ironic design choice.
Solar Aid gets some support and funding from Solar Century, “the UK’s leading provider of solar photovoltaic (PV) solutions”. Part of that support is help from Solar Century’s marketing department, who came up with these ads for the Sunny Money product:
This system is powering a small office that is used by Christian groups working to translate the New Testament into local tribal languages. They are running a few laptops for 5 to 8 hours per day and 3-4 lights for several hours in the evening. They had around 300 Watts of various types of PVs on the roof. This is the first system that I got to see and it had several of the shortcomings that I saw in almost all of the systems that I saw in Africa.
- No fuses or circuit breakers on any battery-connected circuits (charge controller or inverter)
- Undersized PV array wire (approx #12AWG on 30 ft. run with over 20 Amps of current)
- Battery connection with inappropriate materials (no lugs or proper terminals)
- Sloppy, unsecured and unprotected wiring
- The PV array is too small to fully supply the desired electric load
- Inadequate supporting documentation or educational materials – system operators don’t understand operations/maintenance requirements
System #2 – ~1200 Watts PV, ~800 AH flooded battery @ 24 Volts
System #3 – ~500 Watts PV, ~600AH flooded battery @ 24 Volts
This system is an a national park office in Guinea Bissau. Actually there are two systems operating in parallel. Together they run lighting, a computer, cellphone charging and substantial water pumping. It was ‘professionally installed’ and one of only two 24 Volt systems that I saw in Africa. The park rangers had a basic understanding of the system and had established a good procedure for re-filling the flooded batteries with distilled water (though it was not clear if was really distilled water, or just the same bottle reused and refilled with well water). It did have a main battery fuse and the array wire looked adequately sized, but as you can see the wiring is still a mess.
System #4 – ~500 Watts PV, 600 AH sealed battery @ 12 Volts
Another ‘professionally installed’ system in a national park, this one in Uganda. This system seems adequately sized for the application and the main components are good, they have around 500 Watts of PV on the roof, 600 Amp-Hours of sealed ‘8D’ style deep-cycle batteries and good quality PV charge controllers and inverter/charger. But once again the problem is with the ‘balance of systems’, how the components are connected together: no circuit protection (fuses or circuit breakers), undersized PV array wires, wiring on the wall was reasonably well secured but not tidy and the wires at the batteries are a mess.
These 12V batteries were at 10.5V at 9:00 am. The rangers told me that the lights would work in the afternoon and then go off after a few hours in the evening. The lighting is 12 VDC running off the ProStar 30M charge/load controllers. The system was in a state of ‘low voltage disconnect’ (LVD) when I saw it. What probably happens is that during the day the PVs charge the batteries up to a high enough voltage to turn on the load controller, but not fully recharge them. Then the lights are used until the LVD turns them off. The inverter has a lower LVD setting and remains on 24/7, running a power strip with several cellphone chargers always plugged in. This has resulted in a chronic undercharging situation where the batteries are never fully recharged and regularly hover around the LVD setting. This is a recipe for disaster and explains why these 2 year old batteries are already wasted.
The rangers had very little understanding of what they should be looking for nor how to best use the system. I suggested they leave the lights off and connect a generator to the inverter/charger to try to rehabilitate the batteries as much as possible. There was no generator input wiring connected to the inverter/charger so they had no easy way to connect a portable generator to top off the batteries. All they need is some extension cord wire and a male plug to hook up a generator once a week to give those batteries a good full topping charge, that would really help those poor batteries.
System #5 – ~300 Watts PV, ~900 AH flooded battery @ 12 Volts
This system is running a tourist lodge inside Kibale National Park in Uganda, primarily lighting loads, but all the cabins and tents have AC receptacles so tourists are probably also using battery chargers and small electronics. The biggest problem I see here is that these flooded batteries are not accessible for maintenance, there is no way to check the water level nor add water to the bottom row of batteries. Additionally, the battery cables don’t have proper lugs or terminals, the inverter is not fused, the wiring is a mess and the whole package is cramped in the too-small space.
This system is also drawn down to its LVD settings almost daily. There is no external metering or battery health indicators for the lodge employees to monitor and they have little understanding of how to operate or maintain the system.
Additionally, the guests at the lodge are given complete access to 240VAC power without any special instructions about the limited nature of their electricity supply. Many people (Westerners especially) are so clueless about energy conservation that I could see people leaving their bathroom or outside lights on all day and night without realizing the consequences.
System #6 – ~400 Watts PV, ~200 AH sealed battery @ 12 Volts
This battery helps to run a 12V deep-freezer at the same lodge as above. This is a load that is well matched to its dedicated PV array and I don’t see any real performance problems with the system, the battery is being well cared for. As long as no new loads are added it should run the freezer for many years. Personally I think the buffalo skull is a nice touch, and the VRLA sealed battery does not need maintenance so it does no harm sitting there. Still, not exactly ‘professional grade’ looking installation, some fuses and a meter would be good improvements.
System #7 – ~650 Watts PV, ~400 AH sealed battery @ 12 Volts
Nicest quality system I saw in Africa. But I’m not sure why the controller wires are twisted and dangling like that. It looks like a phone handset cord, or as if the controller was going to bungee jump off the wall. Runs an satellite internet cafe at Queen Elizabeth National Park, Uganda. It was the fastest internet connection I found during the whole trip. We watched some of my YouTube videos.
System #8 – ~200W PV, ~600 AH sealed battery @ 12 Volts
Tourist lodge near Queen Elizabeth N.P. Same problems: no fuses, no meters, no battery lugs, undersized PV array wire, regular LVD load control and little O&M understanding by system users. This system is chronically undercharged, they need to reduce their load with better conservation and efficiency measures and also increase the PV array. I suggested a timer or remote switch for all the loads, so they only provide power for a few set hours per day. That could help elminate the problem of lights being left on all day and night. Another PV module or two would be really good too, especially with the ongoing expansion of the lodge and increasing lighting requirements.
These next four pictures are all from a rural office in Tanzania run by a large international development aid organization, they have 3 systems of different ages operating in parallel.
System #9 – ~480 Watts PV, ~400 AH sealed battery @ 24 Volts
System #10 – ~160 Watts PV, ~200 AH sealed battery @ 12 Volts
System #11 – ~100 Watts PV, ~150 AH sealed battery @ 12 Volts
This ‘professionally installed’ system in a remote Tanzanian village runs a medium sized office including 3 desktop computers with LCD monitors, occasional additional laptops, two printers, a VSAT satellite internet system and 6 to 10 lights for several hours each night. They are running at a regular energy deficit, with the average baseload of the office exceeding the charging capacity of the PV array.
There are actually 3 different systems running here in parallel. The have the same problems as the others: no fuses, no meters, undersized wires, inappropriate terminals and generally sloppy looking wiring. Most of the loads were on the biggest system, with about 500 Watts of PV on a 400 AH battery @ 24 Volts. The 24V system was at 23 Volts in the middle of a bright sunny African afternoon. The PV array was producing about 18 amps and the loads were consuming around 26 amps. While the office is occupied this load is fairly constant. It was a little cloudy when I was there so they might see a bit over 20 amps with better sun, but that is just not enough to keep up with the load. The office is closed on the weekend, and it seems that is the only time the batteries get close to a full charge. They need more PVs and some metering so they can take better care of the batteries. There was no way for them to read the battery voltage at all. That is bare minimum essential equipment in my opinion.
Also, the 24V system has a good DR inverter/charger that could really help those batteries with an occasional recharge from a portable generator but there was no AC input wiring connected to it. Just like in Uganda, all they need is an extension cord and a plug and they would be able fully recharge the batteries occasionally until they can get more PVs installed. As it currently is running I don’t think the batteries will last more than a year.
The last picture showing the modules on the roof is a really extreme example of something I saw pretty often. The installers are reluctant to cut wires and cables to the proper length! They often leave huge loops or coils of excess wire. In a 12V PV charging circuit, this practice, along with undersized wires, results in unfortunate and avoidable power loss through voltage drop. Wire is cheap compared to PV modules and batteries. Don’t choke out your array with wires too small and too long!
Okay, have I convinced you that the solar electric industry in Africa could use improvement? How do I propose we do it, you ask? Well, one solution will hopefully be the SolarNexus, the new off-grid electric system product from Island Energy Systems. I took a prototype version of the Nexus over to Tanzania and showed it around to solar dealers and prospective end-users. People liked it. They see the obvious value of an integrated package that includes pre-wired circuit protection, high quality electronics and metering. On the plane ride home I came up with the next design iteration:
The sun rising over the Atlantic Ocean in Guinea Bissau is a great image to sum up the potential of solar electricity in Africa. They have the resource – there is plenty of sunshine. They have the need – over 500 million people without access to electricity. They have the desire, and solar electricity could bring many significant improvements to the quality of life, education and health care across the continent. What they need is improved, simplified systems and education on how to care for them. Island Energy Systems is committed to solar empowerment for the planet. Our goal is to supply products and services for high quality off-grid PV system installations to people around the world.
Please contact us if we can help with your ‘solar empowerment’
I’ve created a 10 question online survey to help me design the SolarNexus. If you have an existing or new application for an off-grid power system please take the survey so that I can gather as much information as possible.
<a href=”http://www.surveymonkey.com/s.aspx?sm=rYVqYlwbE_2bF_2f7ZBhQmGu3Q_3d_3d”>Click Here to take survey</a>
The new 14 kW photovoltaic system for the FLAME vocational training school in Canchungo, Guinea-Bissau, West Africa is up and running. Here are some pictures of the installation and a description of how it came together. Unfortunately, my 5 year old digital camera did not like the brand-new high speed 4 GB compact flash card that I bought before the trip so all of these pictures were taken as stills on my DVD video camera, and quality is not so great.
Here’s the boxed modules and rails as I found them when I arrived.
I had a great time leading the installation crew of 8 – 12 young men aged 19 to 29. Communication was a bit difficult, however, because none of my crew spoke English and I don’t have much, if any, Portugese, which they understand, and zero Kiriol, which is the common spoken language. I ended up speaking to them mostly in Spanish, and they seemed to get maybe 60% of what I was saying. There were 2 or 3 folks around who could speak English and translate for me on the important details but they were not always available, so we used a lot of gesturing and rough sign language to be able to work together. They were smart guys however and it did not take them long to understand all of the installation tasks involved. After about the third string of modules they had the module racking and wiring figured out and did a great job of putting it all together. I was able to stand back and supervise the array installation for the most part.
Once we got down off the roof I was a bit more hands-on getting the nexus (powercenter) hung and wired but I had two ‘electricians’ who knew how to pull wire and make wiring connections which was a great help.
I’m happy to say that I didn’t forget anything in the equipment package that I shipped in October! We had all the parts we needed to complete the installation with a number of things left over. That was my biggest fear, of course, that we’d run short of some essential thing that would be impossible to find locally. We did decide to mount the power nexus directly above the batteries to ensure that we’d have enough wire for the two parallel runs of 4/0 battery cable which normally I’d try to avoid doing. But, it made sense in terms of minimizing the floor space taken by the system and they have promised to build a box to contain and protect the batteries which will help alleviate my concerns for accidents.
There are no electrical inspectors, nor codes for that matter, in Guinea-Bissau and it shows. The main circuit distribution panel that was already wired in the building was a cheezy plastic affair with a few DIN-rail mounted circuit breakers connected to wires twisted together and taped – not even wire nuts! So we re-routed all the home runs into the Outback AC Flexware enclosure and used that as the main panel. The DIN rail breakers fit perfectly and with all the correct bus bars and grounding the system would actually meet NEC codes! (until one started to look more closely at how the load circuits are wired – somebody get these people some wire nuts!)
Turning on the system was exciting for everybody, and not just because of the dead short to ground in one of the existing load circuits that caused a dramatic breaker trip and small bit of smoke to be released from an AC surge suppressor. No, it was exciting because the lights came on and computers and sewing machines powered up for the first time without the noisy and stinky generator rumbling away. The generator had been broken for the previous few weeks too, so once the PV system was operational all the classes were back in session again.
Here’s one of 3 daily computer classes in session
Here’s the sewing classroom with all the machines finally operational. Before the PV system all the girls had to share 4 squeaky antique treadle machines
Once the installation was complete I spent the last few days teaching some basic PV concepts and training folks on how to operate and maintain the system. Here I am explaining series versus parallel circuits with translation help from John Kleet.
This is Herb and Martha, the driving forces behind FLAME and the industrial school. Most folks their age are firmly planted in their easy chairs. Not these two, they’ve been going to Africa for the last five years and built a house and a vocational school in one of the least developed countries in the world. I’m impressed by their determination, hard work and great attitudes. Take a look at their website at www.flameministry.org and please consider a donation to support their efforts.
Well I’m on my way to Africa. Right now I´m in Lisbon, Portugal where I have a 7 hour layover before my flight to Bissau. I thought I´d tell you about my hopes for the second half of this trip and also tell the story of my effort to get into the solar electric product manufacturing business.
This story really began during my time as manager and lead installer for Rainshadow Solar. In addition to being the solar electric installation contractor for San Juan County, Rainshadow is a wholesale distributor of DC rated circuit breakers to the solar electric industry. That is a part of the business that the owner, John Mottl, started in the mid-90´s when Trace Engineering in Arlington, WA was making the first high power inverters for off-grid home power systems and there was a need for specialty DC breakers in the newly emerging solar electric industry. John went to the manufacturer and set up Rainshadow as the wholesale distributor of Heinemann (later Airpax, now Sensata) circuit breakers to the solar industry.
While I was at Rainshadow I spent a lot of time with these breakers. We would recieve purchase orders and ship breakers all over the country. The problem is, however, there are limited options for breaker boxes or enclosures in which to install these breakers. Trace (now Xantrex) had the DC 250 disconnect box, then Outback came along and started selling their PSDC and PS2DC boxes, which were a marked improvement over the old Trace box. Then a few years ago Robin Gudgell, the guy who had designed all of the above mentioned enclosures, started Midnite Solar and is now selling a variety of circuit breaker enclosures for different battery based electric system needs.
In about 2003 I started to use the breakers off the shelf at Rainshadow to build custom small integrated power centers for my low power off-grid customers. It was a fun design challenge as much as anything and I would drill, cut and nibble holes in steel or plastic boxes to mount PV array combiner breakers, array disconnects, controller, load and small inverter breakers. A few of those boxes got inspected by state inspectors, they never liked the fact that my boxes were not UL listed but they also never made me replace them once they understood the situation and that the individual breakers and boxes were all UL listed. It is up to the individual inspector how they want to interpret the National Electric Code, and UL listing is optional.
So in the fall of 2007 ,when I realized that I was going to need to start my own company I decided to pursue my ideas for pre-wired powercenters. In addition to the DC breakers I see the need for a product that includes fully pre-wired electronics such as PV charge controllers and inverters in a low-power ‘plug and play’ power center.
I started building prototypes:
This is the first pre-wired AC/DC powercenter that I built. I called it the ‘Desert Island’ box because it would be a good thing to use if you were to be stranded on deserted island and happened to have a CD player and a few disks to listen to. It also has no means of AC charger input, because on a desert island you would not have gas for the generator. This one is in service at an off-grid home on Shaw Island.
Here is a bent aluminum panel with a panel mount BZ Products MPPT 250 charge controller and a Magnum MM600 inverter/charger. I called this one the ‘Outer Island’ powercenter, because its still off-grid, but you’ll need gas for the generator. This one is still in my shop.
This is a Desert Island box I built for my friend Mason Huffine who took it to Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania.
In December I came up with a new name for my pre-wired power centers. I wanted to use something different than ‘power center’ to describe my boxes because that term is too generic and does not really explain the role of these boxes as the central interconnection point of a complete system. Thus the “SolarNexus” was born. The word NEXUS means “a connection point, or center, of a system”. I think this a great name for my products because it describes them well. They are not ‘systems’ on their own, but they are a central connection point, or nexus, of a system that includes charging sources (PV, wind, microhydro, AC generators or grid), battery storage and loads.
I have also started referring to Midnite Solar E-Panels and Outback Flexware pre-wired AC/DC panels as “nexus” (nexuses?) also. Who knows, maybe we can coin a new term to describe that element of an off-grid system.
Here is the latest version of the SolarNexus. I had this one fabricated by a shop in Bellingham that has CNC laser cutting equipment and nice sheet metal tools so it is the most clean and professional looking prototype yet. Still on the list for future improvements before production will be a pictoral diagram label to explain what all the breakers are doing and molded plastic covers to provide weatherproofing and protection from the elements, and eventually hopefully UL or ETL listing.
I’m going to start out trying to sell these to emerging markets in the developing world. Thats where there are still millions of people without access to electricity, and UL listing is not a requirement for entry into the market. My prototype pictured above is currently packed into a box and on its way to Mason’s office at Solar Aid Tanzania. After my two weeks in Guinea-Bissau I’m headed to meet up with Mason to check out the solar electric scene in East Africa. My hope is that I’ll be able to show off the SolarNexus to development groups, missionary types, governmental people and others to try to determine what the market looks like for this kind of product and gather as much information as possible on what features are desired so the next version can be even better. If all goes as I hope I’ll come home with some orders or at least good leads to be able to start ramping up production of the Nexus in my home shop. Wish me luck and I’d appreciate any comments or suggestions anyone has.
Next week I’ll be getting on a plane in Seattle to fly to Guinea-Bissau, West Africa. I’ll be joining Herb and Martha Reynolds, of FLAME Ministries and orchestrating the installation of a new 14kW off-grid solar electric system for their new vocational training school.
Here is a picture of some of the equipment that I’ll be installing:
In addition to that gear, the system will have 84 Sharp 170 Watt PV modules on a flush roof mount rack and eight big industrial flooded HUP Solar-One batteries.
Here’s a picture of Martha from when we loaded the container in Mukilteo one rainy day in October:
Those are stacks of PV modules behind her and to her right. The other stuff is donated sewing machines and computers for the vocational school, bags and boxes of dried and canned foods and boxes of donated seeds from Ed Hume.
Here’s Herb and me with one of the eight, 12 Volt industrial deep-cycle batteries. The system is 48 Volts, so the 12V cases will be wired in series/parallel with two strings of four batteries in parallel.
I have known Herb and Martha since 2003, when they purchased a 450 Watt off-grid PV system from me when I was managing Rainshadow Solar. At that time they were building a missionary residence for themselves to stay while they are in Canchungo. It was a 2kW Outback inverter system that I pre-wired with Trace C-40 controllers for PV charge control and 12V load control. I also racked and pre-wired 6 Siemens SP-75 modules in the array to an attached PV combiner box. I built plywood crates for the array and the power center and took it to Snohomish to help the Reynolds load it into their first container full of supplies for their mission. There are pictures of the system in the gallery of the Rainshadow site, under the ‘solar electric’ tab.
Herb and Martha’s was the first complete off-grid PV system that I designed and built for the customer to take to their remote location and install themselves with local electricians and carpenters. Now, five years later, I am trying to make that type of sale the business model for Island Energy Systems. So it seemed to be appropriate timing when last summer I got a call from Herb and Martha saying that they had built a vocational training school in Guinea-Bissau and they needed a solar electric system to run it. We worked together t0 define the load requirements and I designed a 14 kW PV system with an Outback Power Systems Flexware 1000 nexus and a large HUP Solar-One flooded battery. We loaded the container in October, it arrived in Canchungo in December.
I’ll have two weeks to get the system operational. They have assured me that I’ll have a crew of carpenters and electricians to help. I’m hoping to train the electricians in operations and maintenance of the system to help ensure it lasts for a long time. We’re putting in a single point watering system which will help to make battery watering easy, which will hopefully avoid the most common cause of system failure.
Speaking of batteries, I am making a plea for folks reading this to consider a donation to FLAME to help them purchase a new set of batteries for their mission residence system. Those Interstate L-16s had a tough life from the beginning, they had to sit in a 80-100 degree container for 4 months when it got held up in customs. Herb and Martha did get the system installed and were able to resurrect the batteries substantially but I’m not surprised that they only lasted 5 years because that kind of slow self-discharge and extended period of sitting is hard on them. We can get dry-charged Surette batteries from Senegal but they are expensive. FLAME is low on funds right now because they have put everything they had into the materials for the vocational training school. Plus, Herb and Martha reported that they were burglarized recently and therefore have no cash to buy new batteries. They’re using candles in their residence where they have the PV system I sold them in 2003. So, I thought I’d put it out there for folks to contribute if they’d like to support FLAME’s mission of the vocational training school and also my misison of solar empowerment. They accept online tax-deductable donations on their website or you can send a check to their treasurer in Seattle, contact info on the website. Thanks for helping!
After my time with Herb and Martha I’m headed to Tanzania to see my friend Mason Huffine and connect with the good solar empowerment work he’s doing there as country director for Solar Aid.
I hope to be able to send updates and new posts from Africa, stay tuned.