Self-maintaining solar power systems deliver electricity in impoverished regions

25 January 2012 – Three hundred children in a remote school in Kenya now have electricity thanks to the successful installation of a portable experimental solar power system there. The design, developed as part of the IEEE Humanitarian Technology Challenge (HTC) Reliable Electricity Solution, is engineered in a way that is self-maintaining and user intuitive. The challenge was to design a system that people in rural, impoverished areas — many whom are both illiterate and non-technical — could easily use, operate, and repair. A team of IEEE volunteer experts led by Butch Shadwell of the IEEE Industrial Electronics Society and Dr. Pritpal Singh of the IEEE Power and Energy Society met in 2010 to figure out a way to solve this problem. Together they designed a self-maintaining solar power system that employs internal management intelligence far greater than what is normally found in a unit its size.

So far, test units have been installed in four locations: In Waslala, Nicaragua at a Catholic Parrish, to provide reliable lighting and refrigeration to a pharmacy as part of a program to provide medical care to the poor; In San Juan Yaro, Nicaragua, in a farm house that supports a women’s health program, including HIV diagnosis and support; In Sirua Aulo Academy near Kilgoris, Kenya, where most students had never before seen an electric light in a building; and in Delaware County Community College (USA) for a program to teach students about solar power. A fifth system is scheduled to be installed at a remote medical clinic in Ghana this year.

All units have functioned well in a wide range of environments among various users. The self-maintaining solar power system is expected to become more affordable over time, as emergency first responders purchase units to support operations in disaster areas, increasing the economies of scale. As a result, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) should be able to finance it in the future for remote medical clinics and private use in impoverished areas.

The IEEE Humanitarian Technology Challenge, or HTC, is a part of Engineering for Change, in which IEEE is a supporter. Engineering for Change provides a forum to connect, collaborate, solve challenges and share knowledge among a growing community of engineers, technologists, social scientists, NGOs, local governments and community advocates, who are dedicated to improving the quality of life all over the world.

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