Micro-energy innovations

September 6th, 2010 by Dave Leave a reply »

In a recent article titled, Power to the People, The Economist provided a helpful round-up of some of the latest energy innovations targeting the 1.5B people who have unreliable or intermittent access to electricity and other modern energy sources.  I’ll use the short-hand term “energy outsiders” to refer to this group.

Here are a few of things that stood out to me:

  • Most of the energy outsiders live in rural areas (cities are most often electrified)
  • Any way you look at it, the trajectory of the current solutions are insufficient for delivering affordable and reliable energy to most of the energy outsiders
  • Innovation is needed on multiple fronts including energy generation, energy storage, energy-powered devices and business models for all of these. [That is, just saying we'll get everyone on the electrical grid won't work.]
  • Solar is important, but biomass energy generation is also important and can deliver 24×7.
  • Microfinance banks may have an interesting opportunity to finance energy-related investments — although they are going to be most interested in efforts which generate income for borrowers (not just consumption) in order to have a higher likelihood for loan repayment.
  • There are health and environmental benefits when people switch from kerosene or wood fuel to LPG/propane (See my previous post on Vidagas)

A few micro-energy business highlights:

  • D.light, the market leader in low cost solar lights, charges $10 for its basic model.  They believe they need to get the retail price down to $5 to make it universally affordable.
  • Husk Power Systems has created a promising “mini-grid” product which uses old diesel generators refitted to burn rice husks supplying power to 600 families.   Pilots demonstrating financial sustainability. [I saw a similar unit earlier this year in a village in the Irrawaddy Delta of Myanmar.]
  • India-based Selco Solar is seeking to differentiate itself by focusing on income-generating reasons to purchase their solar products.  Their first product is a solar-powered electric sewing machine and they have a hybrid (solar/biomass) banana drying machine in the works.
  • MicroEnergy Credits has an interesting approach for extending the global carbon trading credits down to individual poor households who switch to greener technologies.

I think there is a lot of potential for bottoms-up approaches to bring electricity, lighting and electric-powered devices to the energy outsiders. I think we’ll see most growth around solutions which have a strong ROI (that is, generate income) for the purchaser (or whatever the business model is).

Please share about other micro-energy innovations and ideas in the comments.

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4 comments

  1. Dick R says:

    There are literally millions of homes in small scattered villages in Africa where it is going to be economically unfeasible to provide reasonable cost electricity using conventional systems. Solar powered LED lighting will be a marvelous boon – to the whole family but particularly to school children enabling them to study after dark. Better educated children lead to more employable/entrepreneurial adults who can move up from very low poverty levels. NGOs need to lead in this exciting new area.

  2. Brendan says:

    Yesterday I happened upon an article which approached power generation in a completely different way. Seems to be best suited for agrarian communities as it uses (in this case) guinea pig excrement to produce both fertilizer and methane for power:

    http://wanderinggaia.com/2010/09/05/guinea-pig-power/

  3. Emily says:

    Solar is an interesting solution to unreliable electricity in rural areas, but it is, of course, climate-dependent. There are other innovations out there too. Manufacturers are in development on a fuel oxide cell that would run on readily available fuels–like palm oil–and could be on the market estimated in a couple years. Actually, we just had an org conference call with our SVP of technology here at Opportunity and he outlined some of the innovations he’s working on. Pretty interesting stuff–check out the blog post: http://www.opportunity.org/blog/update-innovations-in-technology/. Extending access to electricity in rural areas could also help people charge their cell phones, making m-banking more feasible. CGAP has a virtual conference today and tomorrow on m-banking. Some interesting points being made in the conversation. http://technology.cgap.org/

  4. Ramesh says:

    As an individual, how can one support deployment of Micro-Energy? MY SUGGESTION – Develop a “KIVA” style micro-finance by concerned citizens of the world.
    If a “village” is willing to accept “Micro-Energy” as a way to obtain electricity, and then turn it around to pay for it to “micro-lenders”, then the micro-lenders (using concept similar to KIVA.ORG) might finance the project.

    Is anyone out there considering this investment approach?

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