From October 5 to 6, Germany-based Phaesun, located in Memmingen, Bavaria, invited experts from across the world to its 2012 Off-grid Experts Workshop. Here manufacturers, project developers and users met in order to jointly develop new, economical and high-quality off-grid solutions within the scope of lectures, discussion rounds and through personal contact at the stands of the 24 exhibiting companies.
One of the most important prerequisites for the development of rural areas is a sufficient supply of fresh drinking water. What is required for this are, above all, solar-operated water pumps. These can also be used to irrigate fields for the cultivation of grain, fruit and vegetables.
Several suppliers of such pumping systems were on hand as exhibitors at the workshop. These included, for example, GWE pumpenboese from Germany and Danish company Grundfos. The latter strives to put a new, improved pump system on the market roughly every two years, indicated Christopher Filchner, sales representative for water management at Grundfos. However, this is not so easy when it comes to a technology that, in principle, has been under development since the days of Archimedes.
"Nevertheless we discover possibilities for improvement that we are able to implement in our new products time and again," says Filchner. "Only recently in a off-grid project we exchanged an old pump from another manufacturer for one of our newest pump systems and were thus able to increase the efficiency of the overall system by approximately 40%."
A further important basic need in those rural areas that are removed from electricity mains is electrical lighting. This is of particular importance, for example, for pupils and students so that they can continue to read and write even after sunset.
Selection of the right system and, above all, the right source of lighting is any case not always that simple. Solar LED lamps are considered to be particularly economical; however, there are sometimes very clear differences in quality among these products. For this reason, the Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems (ISE) has developed an extensive testing procedure, in order to separate the wheat from the chaff among LED lamps.
The requirements catalog that these scientists compiled for this purpose includes, for example, approximate values for brightness and its degradation over the course of the respective hours of operation, the durability of plugs and switches, or the number of autonomous hours of operation in the case of fully charged batteries.
And the light goes on
"Many of the LED lamps available on the market do not comply with our requirements for the respective special conditions, for example in the rural areas of Africa," explains Norbert Pfanner, senior scientist for autonomous systems and standalone power systems, who is also responsible for the LED lamp project "Lighting Africa" at Fraunhofer ISE. "And the price is not necessarily the question. There are many expensive lamps that do not meet requirements either."
All the more important that scientists from Fraunhofer ISE take on this topic, because an investment in a solar lighting installation with LED that no longer works after just a short period can be particularly aggravating for an African household without significant financial security.
An interesting pico photovoltaic system for rural electrification was presented by Fosera. The system consists of a pico battery system, which is supplied by pico solar modules. Here, the word pico stands for particularly small photovoltaic systems, which are so small they can hardly be compared with a home PV system as we know it in the western world.
The basic variant includes a storage system with a six ampere-hour storage unit and a miniature solar module that supplies the battery. These components can then be combined with a number of other components that match the system. These include, for example, several different LED lamps, a battery charger for cell telephones, a radio and a particularly energy-efficient TV device.
All the components can be easily combined with each other, since everything functions at the same voltage level, points out Catherine Adelmann from Fosera. Thus no DC-DC converters are required, which minimizes both costs and efficiency losses. The company also offers a pico LED street light for 500 per unit. Other planned projects include a pico cinema, a pico Internet café and a pico barbershop, says Adelmann.
The operation of solar refrigeration systems can also be very important for many inhabitants of rural areas in developing countries. The Institute for Air and Refrigeration Technology (ILK) in Dresden is involved in the development of such systems. They usually consist of a container on which a solar generator surface is fastened. Inside the container either ice is manufactured, milk refrigerated or temperature-sensitive medicine is stored.
In his lecture "Solar for Rural Healthcare in Western Africa", Larba Nadieba of Coalition SIRHCA also focused on the importance of solar energy for public medical services. If one aims to help people to help themselves, then it should first be ensured that they are healthy, he remarked. Solar electricity, for example, can help to supply hospitals with electricity for lighting and medical equipment.
Together with Phaesun, Coalition SIRHCA offers a so-called "hospital kit" that includes the most necessary electrical facilities for healthcare in rural areas in Africa and which finances itself, among other things, through donations.
Visitors to the Phaesun Off-grid Experts Workshop were further able to obtain information about many other interesting topics and projects. Not only at lectures and at the stands of exhibitors, but within the scope of a somewhat more unconventional discussion format.
Thus there was, for example, the World Café with eight tables where different topics were offered in each case. At each table visitors and experts were able to engage in a free exchange with one another on the respective topics.
Another platform was offered by the so-called "running discussion", a successful alternative to conventional panel discussions. Here all of the workshop participants were able to first determine the topic that they desired to discuss and afterwards express their opinions as representatives for or against a particular position at an open microphone.
A further highlight was the Electric Motocross Race, where visitors to the Workshop were able to mount electrically operated motorcycles and race around a motocross track. And a lecture by Niels Pflaeging from BetaCodex Network on new completely new approaches to business leadership evoked particularly lively discussion.
The pyramid-shaped power structures found in nearly every company across the globe are no longer able to appropriately respond to the demands of an ever more complex world, he maintained. Thus the authority to make decisions should no longer be provided solely to bosses or department managers, but rather to teams that more or less democratically reach decisions within the group.
"This gives the boss room to do other things," agrees Tobias Zwirner, managing director of Phaesun, who actively implements this new concept at his company. "I can only recommend that everyone takes these new approaches into consideration."
Translated by Alan Faulcon; edited by Becky Beetz.