Solar Power Angels and Demons

Pumulani means rest in Nyanja. The name of a local solar power training school, it is the motto espoused by the head instructor, a Dutch expat who started the school in response to demand and insight from the solar power company he and his wife run in the capital of Lusaka. His enterprise is truly amazing, but is dwarfed by his ambitions.

The school recently opened on their farm, isolated in the bush halfway between Kafue and Lusaka. Footprints of Duiker, Kudu, and Civet can be found in the dirt surrounding the complex, a large building complete enough to have started classes. After meeting the owner of the school, I imagine the school will be a work in progress for years to come, a playground of sorts for him to experiment with and teach renewable energy to the Zambian population and to further his own personal desire to tinker.

I was lucky enough to join one of the week long training courses in solar power. The class spanned from the theory of solar power to the design of solar power systems, including installation, maintenance, and troubleshooting. The classroom sessions quickly led to hands onexperiments with solar panels and batteries. The entire class constructed a full-blown system to power any number of devices by the week’s end.

There is a dire need for such expertise here. Knock off solar panels can be found in the cramped tin roofed market stalls, which may or may not be sold with all of the equipment required to make them work properly. Prices for the same equipment and installation vary dramatically between different local companies – some of whom may or may not actually know what they are doing. The training is open to anyone: rival company’s, technicians, engineers, and even consultants like me – all in the name of spreading information and giving people power.

Their aim isn’t just to create a school, but a center of renewable energy. They want to create a playground just off the main road at one edge of the farm, with games and toys designed to teach the basic mechanisms of renewable energy to youth in addition to the typical swings and slides. ‘Instill it in them early,’ as advocated by the proprietor. They are constructing a number of simple chalets for students during their course, for ‘fewer distractions and better focus on the material taught.’ His farm currently boasts a number of clever designs, including borehole pump powered by a solar panel that tracks the sun as it moves across the sky, a solar thermal hot water heater, and a fish pond provided with a stream of water from a solar powered pump – his goal is to completely power his farm and house off the Zambian grid, which can prove to be finicky at times, to say the least.

As of 2006, only 19% of Zambians had electricity. 49% of the urban population was electrified, 3.2% of the rural areas were. In a country with as sparse a rural population, getting electricity to the far reaches of the country is a daunting, if not impossible task for the foreseeable future.

One interesting conversation the class continually came back to, was theft of the panels. Evidently solar panels go like hot cakes once installed. One of the larger cell network providers here had to abandon solar powered cell phone towers in remote areas altogether. Their first installations showed the lack of consideration for theft, with panels in easily accessible and maintainable locations near the bottom of the towers. The next revision included a raised installation surrounded by a fence and barbed wire. The last revision reverted to a generator with a refueling truck making rounds to ensure the generators never die.

Another story told of a rural clinic powered by solar energy. When the in-charge discovered the panels had been stolen, the clinic was promptly closed with the promise not to reopen until the panels were returned. The panels were back in place 2 days later, and the clinic was reopened. The difference between these two stories conveys the mentality and approach needed to be successful here. Community trumps technology. Anything can be stolen by one means or another – but it takes the strength and unity of everyone for mutual security. In order to get the backing of the community, however, your system has to benefit the community in tangible ways.

We are installing solar power in a number of clinics – but its only to power a data collection system. There are no additional lights, vaccine fridges, or any immediate visible benefits from our solar power installation. In the long term, there is a great potential for the data system to improve health outcomes – the goal of the project is to reduce under five mortality by 30% within 5 years. How can you instill long term appreciation in the local population now, however, when the immediate desire for television, radio or lights can easily usurp the good intentions of the installation?



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