A solar micro grid, now being shipped in pieces, will arrive in Uganda early June. Once assembled on site, it is designed to carry enough energy to power around 20 businesses and homes on Kitobo, a fishing island.
“Most of the locals’ electricity is delivered to the wealthy,” said Jalel Sager, a PhD candidate studying in the Energy & Resources Group, an interdisciplinary graduate program at UC Berkeley. “We are going to replace the expensive and noisy diesel generators with our innovation.”
Along with his colleague Austin Cappon, Sager is the co-founder of California-Renewable and Adaptive Energy (CAL-RAE), an organization that seeks to secure social benefits in developing nations. CAL-RAE also branched out and formed New Sun Road, a benefit corporation based in Oakland, that delivers energy services globally.
“Oakland is a great place for us because there’s a fair amount of warehouse space available to us—our dream is now to find some reasonable new digs where we can test, manufacture, and grow,” Sager said. “We also like exporting from Oakland—it feels good to produce things here that we believe in and send them abroad to people who need and want them.”
By utilizing the resources from both CAL-RAE and New Sun Road, Sager’s team traveled to Uganda last December and interviewed dozens of villagers living in poor conditions.
“People in Kitobo are lively and are keen to adopt urban lifestyles,” said Andrew Ssentongo, a social entrepreneur and one of Sager’s close collaborators in Uganda. With a population of around 4,000 people, the vibrant fishing villages of the Ssese islands of Lake Victoria feature an abundance of small businesses such as hair salons, barbershops and DVD rental stores, said Ssentongo in an email interview.
“Andrew did a number of surveys for us,” Sager said. “We sent him our survey materials, asking pretty specific questions to the community about their demands, about their electric use and about what they pay.”
They soon figured out there was an opportunity for solar power.
Many locals rely on diesel generators. In addition to the loud, clattering noises that the machines make, their prices are skyrocketing, Sager said. “Usually we’re talking about a dollar 50 cents to two dollars per kilowatt,” he said. “In California we pay on average 14 to 15 cents per kilowatt hour.”
In Uganda, around 90 percent of the rural population has no access to the electric grid. While generators run during the daytime, at night locals use kerosene lanterns. “It’s very dark at night,” Sager said. Each family burns about a half-liter of kerosene every night, which is detrimental to health. Kerosene causes toxic indoor air pollution and poses burn risks, especially among women and children.
Sager knew he wanted to bring in solar energy. But first he had to come up with a logical financial approach. Typically, to build and complete an electric system for a community would cost around half a million if not $1 million, “which is capital that is not available to these communities,” Sager said. “Our goal is to bring the solar panels to first power those groups that have the needs to run generators, because they can afford solar power right off the bat.”
Sager and his team are currently funding their own equipment with a combination of angel investment and personal funds. He considers this project a loss leader, a pricing strategy that sells low in order to stimulate more sales in the future.
Once he gets the system installed, Sager said, the idea is to bootstrap the system by enlarging it to cover more users. CAL-RAE’s chief engineer, Jonathan Lee, has visited the island last December. Along with Sager, the team sent out order sheets to the community, collecting a rough picture of what the demand might look like.
But Sager, a 2012 recipient of the U.N. Seed Initiative Award, honoring projects that better the life of people in developing nations, knew from experience that this operation wasn’t going to be easy. A previous solar grid development project he undertook in Vietnam was put on hold for financial reasons.
“We ran into a cost-overrun on the government side that the Vietnam project couldn’t bear,” Sager said. “We were using an older style micro grid that required hundreds of thousand of dollars to put in. It was a stretch financially.”
From that experience, Sager said, he learned to design a lighter system that can be built in first and expanded upon later on. Rather than trying to get a big chunk of capital together in a community that is struggling to make ends meet, his team is aiming for a lighter infrastructure commitment.
Another lesson, which is now applied to the Kitobo project, is that it isn’t strategic to rely on government subsidies. In Vietnam, part of the deal was that the government would cover a third of the cost.
But these things have nuances, Sager said. “They [subsidies] can take a long time to come through,” he added. “They can also disappear.” This time, Sager and his team designed the system to be viable even without government subsidies.
Compared with many current micro grid providers, Sager said his team is tackling solar energy in a different way. They based their system architecture and novel control algorithms on the potential users and their social context. “Technical choices for me are secondary,” Sager said.
“We take the current condition on the ground, see what research we can do in a year and iterate while we are implementing these projects with our industry partners, ” he added. To keep his project’s momentum going, Sager says: “We try to run away from inertia whenever possible.”