UNCDF Energy Ladder Research

The first and second phases of the Energy Ladder Research project, a yearlong study in rural Uganda funded by the United Nations Capitol Development Fund CleanStart Programme, are nearly complete. The study aims to investigate end-user patterns of adoption of off-grid solar energy products in one district each in the central and the eastern regions of Uganda. Our first project announcement can be accessed here.

In the first phase of the project, Arne Jacobson and I organized a stakeholder workshop in Kampala, and visited and built familiarity with the districts under this study. During this phase, we also pilot tested the household phone survey and mapped the off-grid solar product distribution chain in these districts.

In the second phase of the project, I trained the survey team from the Center for Integrated Research and Community Development Uganda (CIRCODU), a Uganda-based organization specializing in field research on topics such as off-grid solar energy, the context and role of research, business models of data partners, and best practices for conducting interviews. During this phase, the CIRCODU team and I also initiated and completed the baseline surveys, which comprised short telephone interviews with 614 off-grid solar product buyers and longer face-to-face interviews with 117 of these respondents. This strategy helped save cost associated with implementing face-to-face interviews with a wider sample and at the same time provided the research depth that comes with in-person interviews, albeit for a smaller sub-sample. The phone surveys were used to gather critical data required for the study and the face-to-face surveys for verifying some of the responses received from phone surveys and for diving deeper into specific topics.

In the next stages of the project, I will prepare baseline survey data for analysis, consolidate early insights from the project based on the work so far, and prepare end-line surveys due to be implemented in January and February of 2017.

Surveyors from CIRCODU interview an off-grid solar product customer, Luwero, Uganda

Surveyors from CIRCODU interview an off-grid solar product customer, Luwero, Uganda

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Example of an electronics shop that also stocks solar components, Luwero, Uganda.

SERC Launches “The Energy Ladder Research” in Uganda

SERC has received a research grant from UNCDF’s CleanStart Programme to conduct a yearlong study in Uganda. This study aims to explore

  • solar energy product adoption patterns for off-grid rural users and if flexible consumer financing methods can help enable adoption of higher levels of access
  • if the use of off-grid solar products leads to improved communication by supporting the use of mobile phones and other similar devices
  • if, given the rise of mobile banking and pay-as-you-go sales models in the off-grid solar sector in East Africa, these solar products have the potential to increase access to mobile banking and similar digital financial services.

The adoption process of energy solutions by rural off-grid populations from basic lighting products to more sophisticated off-grid power systems is often explained by using the concept of an ‘energy ladder’. A ladder suggests a linear process of adoption involving substitution of inferior technologies with superior ones as users move up the rungs of the ladder. However, it is likely that while substitution does occur in some cases, energy adoption frequently involves fuel and technology “stacking”, in which new technologies are obtained but the original technologies are also retained.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, only 14 percent of people have access to grid electricity; however, nearly 70 percent now have access to mobile phones. While the demand for use of mobile phones is high in these regions, they often lack access to electricity and end up paying steep fees for phone charging services in the local market. A symbiotic relationship exists between increasing access to electricity in Africa and expanded use of information, communication and banking services using a mobile phone.

Our research team, which is led by Arne Jacobson, Richa Goyal, and Meg Harper, will take a rigorous look at these assumptions. We plan to initiate activities in March with a preliminary field visit to Uganda. The research initiative is jointly managed by UNCDF’s CleanStart Programme and Kat Harrison, Associate Director of Impact at Acumen, and is supported by the Global Off-Grid Lighting Association, GSMA and the World Bank Group.

Microgrid Project Groundbreaking Ceremony

Monday’s groundbreaking ceremony for our Microgrid project was a success – read more about the event and learn about the project goals and partners at the following:

Analyzing Opportunities for PV Systems on the North Coast

Last spring, the North Coast Resource Partnership (NCRP) issued a call for applications from small water and wastewater service providers in disadvantaged communities to host demonstration projects. The goal was to identify projects that would serve to “beta-test” a small community resources toolkit, provide real engineering support to providers, and develop case studies to serve as examples for the North Coast region as a whole.

Technical assistance for the projects selected by the NCRP was led by GHD Inc. in Eureka, CA. SERC was subcontracted by GHD to complete a photovoltaic (PV) analysis for the Smith River Community Services District’s (SRCSD) water pumping facilities using methods that could be replicated as part of the small community resources toolkit.

The System Advisor Model (SAM), developed by the National Renewable Energy Research Laboratory, was selected because SAM is a free, robust, and well-supported analysis platform. Also, data collected with a Solar PathfinderTM during the site visits was easily imported into the SAM model to account for shading at the proposed array locations.

Internal view of one of the seven water pumping facilities owned and operated by the SRCSD that were analyzed for opportunities to install photovoltaic systems.

Internal view of one of the seven water pumping facilities owned and operated by the SRCSD that were analyzed for opportunities to install photovoltaic systems.

SERC engineers analyzed seven of the SRCSD facilities and found that if PV systems were implemented on an individual basis, the simple payback periods ranged from 8 to 12 years, given the current incentive and pricing landscape. If the systems were aggregated together, the simple payback period would be about nine years to install 64 kW DC of PV generating capacity that could meet approximately 70% of projected SRCSD electrical loads. As a result of this work, SERC recommended that the SAM model and the Solar PathfinderTM be incorporated into the NCRP Small Community Resource Toolkit.

Sustainable Futures Speaker Series: Adam Browning

Unfortunately, inclement weather precluded Adam from making it to campus in time to deliver his talk. We hope to reschedule; stay tuned.

HSU’s Sustainable Futures Speakers Series spring lineup kicks off on February 6 with Adam Browning of Vote Solar. Adam will present a free, public lecture from 5:30pm-7:00pm in Science B 135 on the HSU Campus. The title of his talk is “Solar Market Development in the US: Theory, Practice, and Prognostications.”

Adam is the co-founder and Executive Director of the Vote Solar Initiative, a non- profit organization with the mission of bringing solar energy into the mainstream. Vote Solar got its start with a successful ballot initiative for a $100 million solar revenue bond in San Francisco in 2001, and since then has been working with state and municipal governments on pro-solar policies, with the goal of jumpstarting the national transition to renewable energy. Vote Solar has 10 advocates spread across the country, working full-time to advance solar markets.

Prior to Vote Solar, Adam spent eight years with the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency’s San Francisco office, where he won the Agency’s top pollution prevention award for developing a program that reduced air emissions of mercury. Adam received a BA with Distinction from Swarthmore College in 1992, and served with the Peace Corps in Guinea-Bissau, West Africa.

California is a leader in solar technology adoption, and Vote Solar deserves considerable credit for its advocacy work over the past decade. If you are interested in the politics of solar power adoption, you should not miss this talk.

RePowering Humboldt with Community Scale Renewable Energy

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In March of this year, along with our partner, the Redwood Coast Energy Authority (RCEA), we completed the three-year RePower Humboldt project funded by the California Energy Commission (CEC). A key deliverable, the RePower Humboldt Strategic Plan, identified future energy scenarios for Humboldt County in which local renewable energy resources could provide over 75 percent of local electricity needs and a significant portion of heating and transportation energy needs by 2030. The plan pinpoints biomass and wind energy as key resources. In addition, large-scale adoption of plug-in electric vehicles and heat pumps was found to be critical to the cost-effective reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Now, the RePower Humboldt team is looking for opportunities to put the plan into action.

At our final project review meeting in Sacramento, CEC project manager Mike Sokol mentioned how impressed the CEC has been with the quality of our work. Now they have backed up this praise with a proposed award to begin implementing the RePower Humboldt Strategic Plan.  The follow-on grant, a $1.75 million award, again partners SERC with RCEA and also includes the Blue Lake Rancheria as a new project partner. Our proposal was ranked third among 30 submissions and was one of only four awards in our research area.

The new project, called Repowering Humboldt with Community Scale Renewable Energy, is expected to begin in June of 2013 and will run through March of 2015. The purpose of the project is to demonstrate and validate key aspects of the RePower Humboldt Strategic Plan.  The project will include two main elements: SERC will lead the design and installation of a first-of-its-kind woody biomass gasifier and fuel cell power system, and RCEA will implement a community-based energy upgrade program.

The biomass energy system will be installed at the Blue Lake Rancheria casino and hotel where it will supply about a third of the electric power needs. It will feature a Proton Power gasifier that turns sawdust-sized woody biomass into hydrogen fuel, and a 175-kW Ballard fuel cell that generates electricity from hydrogen. Waste heat from the system will be used to meet hot water needs. We aim to achieve a biomass-to-electricity efficiency double that of a comparable-scale, conventional steam power plant. If successful, this project could open up a new market for distributed-scale, biomass combined heat and power systems.

The energy upgrade component will focus on services for residences and businesses in the Mad River valley community (City of Blue Lake, Blue Lake Rancheria, and surrounding areas), including energy efficiency, solar energy systems, heat pumps, and the installation of two electric vehicle charging stations. This energy upgrade will demonstrate a comprehensive, community-based energy services model that can be replicated throughout the state.

The RePowering Humboldt with Community Scale Renewable Energy project is an exciting effort that will help move Humboldt County toward a secure energy future. Watch for updates in future newsletters as the project unfolds.

All project documents for the RePower Humboldt project, including the strategic plan, a regulatory and policy guide on renewable energy and energy efficiency, and other technical reports and memos can be accessed on SERC’s web page here.

Photo credit: Malene Thyssen (wave) and Bin vim Garten (vehicle).

Designing Solar Mini-Grids for Rural India

In rural India, despite decades of electrification programs, about 400 million people making up half of all households still do not have access to electricity. SERC has recently joined a consortium of U.S.- and India-based energy experts to assess the feasibility of building solar photovoltaic mini-grids as a solution to the high cost of electrification in remote areas. These systems would each consist of a single solar generation station per village with a distribution network to provide power to all nearby homes and businesses. If successful, this model could be widely replicated at lower cost than providing each home with a stand-alone solar system.

SERC’s role in the project will include performing a literature survey of similar projects that have been installed in other developing countries, an assessment of how Indian energy policy and regulations affect the project, and field studies to estimate energy demand and willingness to pay for electricity in the participating villages. We will provide technical assistance to the rest of the team on several other project tasks.

The project is jointly funded by the U.S. Trade and Development Agency and Azure Power of India. San Francisco firm Energy and Environmental Economics (E3) is the lead consultant.

Spreading the Word About Grid- Connected Solar Electricity

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Jim Zoellick checks the shading profile for the Weitchpec solar electric array. (Photo credit SERC.)

When people ask me, “Does solar work in foggy Humboldt County?” I answer with a resounding “Yes,” adding that the large number of solar electric systems gracing our local rooftops is a good indication that solar works here. In fact, although coastal Humboldt County only receives about two-thirds as much solar energy as the rest of California, we have installed about three times more solar electric systems than the rest of the state on a per capita basis.

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