Kerosene is the primary source of power in rural emerging regions across the globe and despite the rural electrification efforts of many governments it does not look like that will change soon. Unfortunately, kerosene power is not all that efficient or clean and it cannot be used to power the technologies we are bringing to emerging regions. Even though it may give you some psychological comfort, burning kerosene underneath your laptop will not make it work. If you want to use electronics you need electrons. Once you have a stream of nicely behaved flowing electrons (no 5000 Volt spikes allowed) you get efficient LED lighting, cell-phones charged and ready to support your business, netbooks running educational games, and perhaps a musical or two on your television. Imagine a village being illuminated not by candles or kerosene lamps, but by the glow of active computer screens and LED lights. This vision will be made real through rural microgrids.
Definitions vary, but fundamentally a microgrid is a small scale power grid. Instead of having a several megawatt power plant feeding a power grid 600 kilometers away with 138 thousand Volt transmission voltages, rural microgrids may produce 5 kilowatts transmitted 100 meters at 240 Volts. Smaller grids allow for incremental deployment of capacity in line with the present demands of villagers on an affordable budget. The 5 killowatt generation can be easily provided by a diesel generator, a solar array or a wind farm. With the above generation capacity we expect to provide enough power to provide electricity for lighting and low-power electronic devices for twenty homes. Take several of these grids and distribute them around a village and you now have a completely electrified village. Providing completely subsidized power isn’t exactly a sustainable business model so we need to meter and charge for electricity.
In collaboration with The Earth Institute at Columbia University we are working on creating an inexpensive turnkey metering and account management solution. Instead of inflexibly charging users for appliance connections we act as a traditional power company and charge for power. In order to keep costs down, a bank of meters communicates with the account manager over SMS, GPRS, or another wireless medium. Alternatively, we can manage payments and the grid locally via a key pad and stored value cards much like the cards used for several public transit systems. If the grids are managed wirelessly, account payment processing can now be automated by making use of a prepaid scratch-off card system. This allows users to use and pay for power as needed and for whatever end they please. One resident may open a cell-phone charging station, another might create an entertainment center using low wattage computers. Residents will not only replace kerosene lamps with LEDs, they will create new businesses.
Just remember that a seed is not a field of crops.