PV meets drinking water

Most people don’t think about it. You turn on the tap and water comes out. But for nearly a billion people in the world, that’s not the case. They have no access to clean drinking water.
Solar technology – through the use of solar-powered pumps – has been helping developing areas get potable water for years. The German government, through its development agency, the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ), has worked on several such projects. Bernt Lorentz GmbH & Co. KG, a specialized solar-operated pump company, has been working in the field since its beginnings in Hamburg in 1993. And Tenesol, a subsidiary of Total & EDF Groups, has been at it for nearly 30 years. These efforts concentrate on using solar to extract groundwater via a pump. Another sector of the market involves using solar energy to power water purification systems.
Autarcon, a Kassel-based firm, thinks it has improved the solar-water purification technology by simplifying the maintenance. Its system, known as SunMeetsWater, or SuMeWa, is unique because no batteries are involved, says Autarcon’s CEO Alexander Goldmaier.
“The problem with using a battery is that they are stolen very quickly and have to be replaced by a technician,” he says.
“That was the goal from the beginning, that everyone can maintain it.” This is especially important in underdeveloped rural areas where drinking water is hard to come by.
“We’re happy when we run into local people who can read, but that’s not always the case. But with these systems if you can see it, you can do it. Anyone can maintain this.”

Batteries not included

Lorentz’s Marketing Director Adrian Honey says his company’s systems also do not use batteries, but said it’s important to distinguish between companies using solar to extract groundwater, like Lorentz, and those using it for water purification, like Autarcon. He feels the SuMeWa system would be very appealing to non-governmental organizations, like Oxfam.
Though people from developed countries may not understand how changing a battery is a problem, it is actually “crazily difficult,” Honey said. Sourcing and delivering batteries to remote locations is a problem and can cost as much as five times more as it does in the U.S. or Germany, he says. Correct disposal of used batteries is also tough, as locals may be poorly educated on the matter.
“No one has ever seen a battery. They have no concept of a battery,” Honey says. In general, “maintenance should be completely avoided. “All around batteries are fairly horrible things.” Autarcon’s system requires two solar panels at 60 watts peak (Wp) – other configurations are possible – and a 24 Volt submersible pump. The system not only pumps water out of the ground – but it treats contaminated water via filtration and anodic oxidation to produce safe drinking water.
Another unique feature, according to Autarcon’s project coordinator, Philipp Otter, is that the system does not require additional chlorine, but is able to produce chlorine from the natural salts in the water. “With this, the system not only operates with self-sufficient energy but is also self-sufficient when it comes to materials,” Otter said. The system also constantly controls water quality, which he said is not available on competing systems of this size. The system can be delivered in a small box and weighs around 40 kilograms.

Award-winning water

Autarcon has already received two awards for SuMeWa. It won the Solar Award at the Intersolar Europe 2011 trade fair, the world’s largest solar industry trade fair. Jurors said the award, presented in Munich this June, was given to Autarcon because the system impressed them with its “simple mechanics, which for the most part can be maintained using a toothbrush and citric acid.” It said the system can be produced on a large scale and used in developing countries.
In September the system won the Clean Tech Media Award in the energy category. Some of the criteria in this category include the degree of innovation, the system’s contribution to the environment, its economic efficiency and market relevance and long-term applicability.
Autarcon, which incorporated last year, got its start at the University of Kassel where Goldmaier and Otter, an environmental engineer, got together. So far they have two projects in Brazil, one in Gambia, one in Ghana and are starting one in Pakistan. Lorentz’s Honey says Pakistan, together with India, are very hot markets these days. He says the two countries combined, “probably represent the fastest growth markets for us at the moment.”

Tenesol works with water

Another company active in the solar-powered water pump sector is French-based Tenesol. For the past 27 years, Tenesol has been using solar technology to produce electricity and to provide energy to water pumps in remote locations, said Ronan Cloud, a spokesman for the company. To date it has installed more than 4,000 solar water pumping systems that deliver about 80,000 cubic meters (m³) of water per day and 5,000 rural electrification systems in isolated communities.
Tenesol had a turnover of 304 million euros in 2010 and has posted annual gains of 25 percent in the past three years. The company now has 24 subsidiaries and two manufacturing plants, including one in Cape Town, South Africa. Cloud says the South African plant makes it much easier for the company to work on the continent. The Cape Town plant is an 85 megawatt (MW) facility and can produce up to 400,000 modules per year, which makes it the largest PV manufacturer in Africa, he said.
Customers include the telecommunications industry, the oil and gas sectors, rural electrification and solar water pumping. In addition, Tenesol is also developing some grid-connected projects. Its latest project is in rural Madagascar, where Tenesol has worked since 1997. The company’s Solar Mission Project 2011 began in June and is focused on five rural villages.
The first project is powered by three 135 Wp PV modules. The solar-powered system can deliver about 5,000 liters of clean drinking water a day. The pumps pull water from depths of up to 40 meters. The system consists of PV panels and storage batteries, which are connected to a pump which is submerged in a borehole or well The pumped water can be used immediately or stored for later use. Local residents are trained to maintain the system. Each of the five systems takes a week to build. Each of the five villages receiving a solar-powered drinking water system has already been provided with solar electricity, Tenesol said in a statement.“ Until now, the only option for the community was to get water from rice fields, water that is unsafe to drink and has major health implications,” said Vololona Razafindrainibe, an employee with Tenesol’s local partner, ASA Madagascar.
“The hot climate aggravates the issue. Children often cannot go to school because it is too hot and they cannot drink safe water.”

The challenges of selling to poor countries

However promising and important the PV water initiatives are, companies shouldn’t plan on them being a moneymaking operation.
The Madagascar project is a humanitarian one. In fact, Tenesol pays for the modules, installation work and maintenance, and employees donate their time to build the facilities. But Tenesol spokesman Cloud says the Madagascar project is a special one. “The majority of rural electrification and water pumping projects involve various associations or government grants, so are not conducted for free,” he says.
Autarcon’s Otter acknowledged that most customers of his company’s system are not exactly well off. At the moment, the company’s clients include non-governmental organizations, which are funded either privately or from government programs. But Lorentz’s Honey notes that there’s a lot of development money available – some 2.3 billion USD available for so-called “WASH” projects or those involving water, sanitation and hygiene – in Africa.

Development agency uses technology

Using solar panels to provide the energy needed to pump water out of the ground has not gone unnoticed at the German Organization for International Cooperation (GIZ). Over the years, GIZ has coordinated projects using solar energy to pump water out of the ground, such as one it worked on in Chile in 2002.
More recently, the agency has been involved in a multi-phase program in Africa financed by Saudi Arabia. Three phases have already been completed and a fourth phase started in 2006 and is expected to be completed in 2014. This phase focuses on using not only solar but also diesel-powered pumps for water facilities in Niger, Senegal, Gambia, Benin, Togo, Burkina Faso, Mali, Chad, Mauritania, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau and Djibouti.
Hans-Walter Wolf, the project coordinator, said solar-backed well systems can work in Africa, but the local populace has to be involved. The project he overseas requires locals to form “water committees” to participate in the maintenance, but Wolf says it works better when the systems are self-financed and the money doesn’t come from outside. That way the locals have a bigger stake in the outcome.
Another problem with solar, as he sees it, is that the panels are often stolen or damaged. “You can protect a diesel generator better against theft,” he said.
Additionally, there is a lack of local government interest in paying for such projects. The local authorities have money, but they are unwilling to use it for such projects, says Wolf. The GIZ requirement that a local “water committee” be established to be involved with the system is written into the contract.
Lorentz’s Honey agreed that getting the local population to take ownership for the system is key. He said some in this sector erroneously favor diesel because if you don’t pay for diesel, the pump gets turned off. But the sun is always there. He said there are various efforts under way to install a solar pay-as-you go system. The key is getting people to take ownership.
“You need a council of elders to take responsibility” for the system. “Otherwise it gets abused. If it’s a community asset, it tends not to get stolen.”