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How Pre-Paid Energy Services Aid In Rural Electrification

timothy posted more than 2 years ago | from the grateful-for-1st-world-problems dept.

Earth 38

First time accepted submitter superfast-scooter writes "I wanted to let the community know of a research project I've been fortunate to be part of — it's a rural electrification project called SharedSolar at the Modi Research Group at Columbia University. The project has 17 pilot sites in sub-Saharan Africa to-date, providing prepaid energy services to over 3000 people who did not have access to electricity — a fraction of the over 1.3 Billion worldwide. The lab has been developing custom software applications to integrate off-the-shelf hardware components, and also provide the operational and management mechanisms needed. Communications with the sites are over the mobile networks. Consumers can recharge their accounts using either cellphones, or visit a designated local vendor who can do it at the site using an Android app. Software residing locally makes each site autonomous, and the online platform allows for remote visibility, localized consumer interactions and integration with payment solutions. And we're planning on deploying soon in Haiti and Kenya."

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doh! (1, Informative)

sgt scrub (869860) | more than 2 years ago | (#39004001)

Please don't give U.S. utility companies any ideas. The last thing I need is to have to pay bills in advance.

Re:doh! (-1)

Mashiki (184564) | more than 2 years ago | (#39004027)

They already do this in parts of the US and Canada. Mostly apartment buildings, I know places here in my own town have it including various expensive condos. You can load up a card with X hydro(that's power for americans) and you pay "at the meter" rates per/KWH for whatever the market price is.

Really though, this is a feel good project, but until the various environmental groups stop repressing the third world and let them industrialize nothing will get better. Life will not improve, and in general it will continue to be a gigantic shithole.

Re:doh! (3, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39004051)

I'm no fan of the environmental movement, but I don't think that's why most third world countries are third world countries.

Re:doh! (2)

Mashiki (184564) | more than 2 years ago | (#39008629)

Haven't been paying attention to what the UN and environmental groups have been doing for the last 25 years? They pay 3rd world nations not to industrialize, to not build power plants. To only built low quality 'renewable' sources of energy that can't suit their needs. That's not enough. Cheap, plentiful energy is probably the biggest game changer for any society. With power you can provide easy ways to move water. With that, you can easily clean it, with that you can provide lighting and reduce crime. And give cheap, easy ways to provide long-term food storage, and refrigeration. With that you have and start to gain a stable food supply.

These are moderization basics. And on, and on, and on. As countries industrialize, their productivity increases, their living standards go up. As their living standards go up, their birth rates decrease because not as many people die from preventables(like we have in the west).

Re:doh! (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39004135)

Aww. Did some poor little environmentalists get their panties twisted in a knot over the thought of not being able to keep people down and repressing them for another 60 years? Oh well, I suppose that's the reality of the modern day environmentalist movements. If you can't debate someone on something, shout them down and bury them under the rug.

Re:doh! (3)

lerxstz (692089) | more than 2 years ago | (#39004307)

Yeah sure, those big evil environmental groups that want to ensure smart use of natural resources, with their grandmother volunteers are repressing the entire third world.

You don't suppose it might have to do with IMF loans making debt slaves out of entire counties? Or the fact that certain developed nations meddle in the affairs of third world countries and destabilize them or prevent them from developing certain technologies? Or that it is caused by dictatorships in those countries? Or the systemic corruption and in-fighting/wars? Or all of the above and more?

If you really think about it, a nation's wealth ultimately comes from its natural resources. If there are none, the country has little to use/trade/sell to develop their industrial infrastructure and educate its citizens. What's left to offer? The cheap labour force. Combined with all the above, you have what many would call a third world country.

But in your view, hey, let's get those "oppressive" environmentalists (who advocate not wasting reources) out of the way and allow unfettered industrialization to occur, and wreck/waste/plunder that small amount of natural capital, rather than using it smartly. And using it smartly often means using the LATEST technology. So no, it's not environmentalists keeping anyone down.

Re:doh! (2)

History's Coming To (1059484) | more than 2 years ago | (#39004407)

They do that in the UK too, you just take a little USB stick type device (not actually a USB stick) to the shops and they load it up with credit, then you stick it in your meter and get credited. It's often used in rented premises so the landlord doesn't get hit with a big bill if the tennants default. Hardly a new idea.

Re:doh! (4, Informative)

Richard_at_work (517087) | more than 2 years ago | (#39004099)

In the UK you could have a pre-pay meter installed on request, and also if the electricity company deems you to be a bad risk (refusal to pay debts etc), and has been this way ever since I can remember (I remember my gran having to stick 50p coins into her meter when I was 4 or 5 - a good 30 years ago).

Re:doh! (2)

ObsessiveMathsFreak (773371) | more than 2 years ago | (#39005109)

Why don't we just grind working class people up and feed them directly to loan sharks altogether. It would cut out predatory measures like these at least.

Re:doh! (2)

Ihmhi (1206036) | more than 2 years ago | (#39004281)

Yeah, the Africans will have the priviledge of getting half the service for five times the price, just like with pre-paid cell phones.

Re:doh! (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39004795)

getting half the service for five times the price, just like with pre-paid cell phones.

Um, I (pre)pay $29.95/month for 1200 minutes, 3000 SMS/MMS, and 100MB of data with pagepluscellular. I can pay $55.00/month for unlimited minutes, SMS/MMS, and 500MB of data.

Can you direct me to any plan where I can get unlimited minutes, unlimited SMS/MMS, and 1GB of data for $11/month? I might even be willing to sell two years of my connected life for that.

Thank you in advance.

Re:doh! (1)

Ihmhi (1206036) | more than 2 years ago | (#39004997)

Do you live in America? The rest of the world is far, far better with cell phone pricing than we are.

Typically in the States, I've found that you're looking at $0.25 a minute or so for prepaid plans in certain metropolitan areas. (YMMV, this is my personal experience in the NY/NJ area.)

Volume discount for buying minutes up front (2)

tepples (727027) | more than 2 years ago | (#39005223)

True, Virgin Mobile USA is 20 cents per minute if you're on the cheapest $7/mo payLo plan. Such a plan is fine for people like me who use a cell phone for arranging rides, much as one might have used a pay phone before they disappeared. People in this use profile delay calls other than arranging a ride until they get to a land line with unlimited local minutes. They may use fewer than 400 minutes per year. But if you use your phone more than that, such as if you use it to replace a land line, you can sign up for a prepay-per-month plan that's a lot cheaper per minute: $35 for 500 minutes of voice and more text and data than you know what to do with (tethering not available).

Re:doh! (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39006611)

This has already become common place in he US. However in the US the typical setup for prepaid metering services is a software based solution using the utility's current Smart Grid / AMI infrastructure. This avoids the extra expense of putting different specialized meters for prepaid which makes sense in developing countries where a very large percentage on consumers would be on prepaid.Â

I know of around 100 US utilities offering prepaid utility service today. I say utility service because it is not only electric utilities doing this, but municipalities that offer electric, water and gas on a prepaid basis.

What about theft? (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39004073)

This is a great idea, but it leaves me with the obvious question: What about theft?

These people do not have much disposable income, even for a service as basic as electrical power. With everything apparently remotely managed, what keeps them from simply splicing a few wires and getting free energy? How will you pay for the solar panels if they do this, without wasting large amounts of money tracking down the thieves?

Hopefully it can be made inexpensive enough for them to reasonably afford, and they can be made to realize that if you go out of business there will be no power for *anyone*

Re:What about theft? (1)

tomhath (637240) | more than 2 years ago | (#39004131)

Reading the article I get the impression the "payment" is really just a way of rationing the power between several consumers wired through meters to the solar panel (they're on a "micro-grid" within 50 meters of the panel). I assume the price they pay is also very low, and with so little power available to share there's plenty of incentive to self-police.

Not new (5, Interesting)

Richard_at_work (517087) | more than 2 years ago | (#39004095)

I just spent two weeks in Uganda, at a rural hospital in Kisiizi - there is no link to the national grid, so they generate their own electricity off of a waterfall that they have (really impressive).

With the excess that they generate, they sell to surrounding villages - the way that they get paid is that each building they link to the Kisiizi grid they also install what is basically a pay-as-you-use black box, as simple as you like. The locals buy pre-paid vouchers from authorised sellers, and they text the code to a number (basically everyone in Uganda, poor or not, has a mobile phone - landlines are extremely hard to find) and their box gets credited with the value.

It has really helped the villages surrounding Kisiizi, as while Uganda has a rural electrification project (again using pre-payment), its very very slow moving (I visited dozens of villages that were no more than 30 minutes off of major highways, and none of them have mains electricity). Fraud and theft of electricity has found to be very small, in general those in the villages are honest and pay their dues.

Re:Not new (1)

instagib (879544) | more than 2 years ago | (#39004305)

When reading about projects like these I'm always wondering how the poor people pay for phone usage, the vouchers, or even where they charge their phones, because I am under the impression that in these rural villages people exchange goods and services, not money.

Re:Not new (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39004345)

Me too!
I'm guessing their cellphone bills are MUCH lower than ours...otherwise they couldn't afford one.
And yes, where do they charge them?

Re:Not new (5, Informative)

Richard_at_work (517087) | more than 2 years ago | (#39004351)

I make a comment further down in reply to someone else, but largely its through sales of goods in markets, or other services - I was buying vouchers in denominations as small as 500 Shillings in Uganda, which is about the equivalent of 15 British pence, or 10 cents. And that would do for a 10 minute call.

Charging is done at roadside stalls, usually either off of a mains supply where there is one (and where the person with the phone isn't connected to that supply), petrol generator or just by a kid or two sat all day turning a hand crank. You saw several of these at each roadside trading point, nothing more than a shanty shack with hand painted advertising.

There certainly is money exchanged in rural villages, and these people travel for hours just to make the equivalent of a dollar or two through selling bananas or pineapples. You have to go really rural for money to disappear altogether - I did a lot of traveling in Uganda and we never came across a village which didn't have some form of money transaction going on.

Re:Not new (3, Informative)

Russianspi (1129469) | more than 2 years ago | (#39005633)

I live in a rural village in Peru. There IS money here, even though everyone here is a subsistence farmer. There are some government programs that wind up putting a very small bit of money in people's pockets. Sometimes people will leave the village for a few months to work a menial job in town somewhere. And sometimes, people decide to grow a small amount of a cash crop (like coffee or cacao), which they can then carry two days to sell for $1-$2 per kilo. Once money is in the village, it gets passed around for work or in trade for produce or game.

Re:Not new (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39006259)

Even if there are no local battery charging services available
there are small Solar Chargers / Hand Torches with built in Battery
that can be bought for a few dollars that can charge your mobile.
I charge my Nokia that way.
If you can afford a Mobile Phone for USD 30 you can also afford a USD 8
Solar Power Panel Charger 8W 800mAh with 3LED Light for Mobile Cell Phone.
One womans emergency charger might be another womans permanent solution.
Mobile Phone Cell towers with solar charging do exist.
Many people in the west who sleep on the streets have laptops and free WLAN these days.
Times are changing.

Prime Directive (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39004163)

First, do no harm.

Why, for the love of God, would you bring electricity to a society that doesn't have it?

Re:Prime Directive (2)

instagib (879544) | more than 2 years ago | (#39004251)

Why [...] would you bring electricity to a society that doesn't have it?

Ignoring the obvious practical advantages of electricity and related appliances for a moment, this is indeed an interesting question.

In the end it's a good thing I'd say - modern civilization and infrastrucure gives people more time to use their brains. Unfortunately, that surplus time is often wasted by watching TV, going to church, or similar brain washing activities.

Re:Prime Directive (5, Insightful)

Richard_at_work (517087) | more than 2 years ago | (#39004291)

Because they already have uses for it - take my Uganda example, everyone already has a mobile phone (pre-paid - MTN usually) and its routine to see booths in major trading places with signs saying "mobile phone and battery charging available here" (usually done by generator or hand cranking - yup, young kids sat down all day cranking a handle to generate electricity).

Mobile phones allow for easy communication, which means you can accomplish trading easier - ring around to see which trading station has few bananas that morning so you can go there and make a little more money.

Electric lights allow for a much better, constant light source than fires or candles - which means work can carry on in homes later in the evening, more income for the family.

I really think most people don't understand these sorts of cultures until they visit the places - I certainly didn't three weeks ago, and my trip really changed my perspective.

How Pre-Paid Energy Services Aid In Rural Electrif (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39004189)

What if the battery of their cell phone is out of juice?

Pre-Paid Energy Service in Tanzania (1)

theideaexplorer (2008150) | more than 2 years ago | (#39004293)

In Tanzania, the electricity supplier, Tanesco, works in a similar way. Every house/appartment has a box/meter installed where the amount of kWh left is displayed. To recharge it, one needs to pay at distribution points by giving the number of the meter and the amount of money necessary. A code is generated, that works only for the meter it was meant for, which is typed into the meter. The entire country's electricity runs this way.

Chicken and the egg (1)

brianleb321 (1331523) | more than 2 years ago | (#39004445)

The thing that struck me immediately while reading the summary is: If you don't have electricity, how do you have a cell phone?

Re:Chicken and the egg (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 2 years ago | (#39004807)

This is all part of wealth transfer. Rich countries like the US (never mind that the US is basically insolvent) pay for a micro power generation plant which probably costs thousands of dollars after everything is added up. Then the power is "sold" for pennies. Once their economy is kick started through these programs more jobs can be outsourced from the US.

Exports help a currency's value grow (3, Interesting)

tepples (727027) | more than 2 years ago | (#39005281)

Once their economy is kick started through these programs more jobs can be outsourced from the US.

The Balassa-Samuelson model predicts that an economy focused on goods and services consumed locally will have an undervalued currency. But whenever "jobs [are] outsourced from the US" or from another developed country, some country is exporting services. As an economy begins exporting goods and services, its currency will become stronger as makers of local goods and services raise their wages to keep workers from flocking to export sectors. Thus the developed countries help the developing countries industrialize.

Re:Chicken and the egg (1)

Richard_at_work (517087) | more than 2 years ago | (#39004933)

Read my other posts on the subject - my view fresh from Uganda, which while certainly it has developed parts, definitely has undeveloped rural areas.

Some clarifications (4, Informative)

superfast-scooter (693095) | more than 2 years ago | (#39005623)

I'm the submitter and one of the SWE's on the project. Prepayment meters are not new, and are quite commonly available and in use. Distributing scratch cards for purchase and validation are also not a novelty, and as noted in the summary this is an option we provide. What seems to be uncommon is the use of software management systems at the sites themselves - a high-level one at that, and not logic embedded in hardware like the meters. Because of this, we're able to control several networked devices at the sites, and add on service features as we learn.

Using intermittent renewables like we do (solar), we need to know how much was generated and ensure everyone is guaranteed a fair share. The software provides us that platform. We haven't implemented demand-response [yet] that will help with better management (for eg: cloudy-day scenarios), but do ration based on how much load is plugged in and how much is being consumed by each consumer. This helps to make sure that just a few heavy-duty consumers do not hog all the resources and exhaust the supply all by themselves.
Also, because this is all in software, it doesn't matter what the source is as long as we use devices that we can network and get readings from. In this sense, the generation could be from solar, wind, hydro, or even the old diesel gensets. We went with solar, hence SharedSolar, but it's really SharedSupply.

Another thing to note is that we can adapt and add more features to a service by changes in the software, without the need to make changes in the hardware configurations themselves. We can replicate the same model, or try new ones out, in different settings using different components as we see fit. For instance, we're evaluating different metering devices now but since everything about the service is in the distributed software platform, we only need to get devices that do AMR/AMI, without the need for even basic logic like prepayment. I wrote about where the software intelligence should sit depending on the quality of IP-based communications channels in a blog post here - http://sharedsolar.org/?page_id=13 [sharedsolar.org] .

Also, just by having the software at the site, it allows us the possibility of tuning the service remotely, along with short turn-arounds between malfunctions and fix.

The points others made about reduction in line theft etc are spot-on. One commenter asked if the consumers pay for the cellular interactions - they don't. This is actually a good case for having developed the local vendor solution the consumers seem to prefer - the entrepreneur who used to sell them kerosene is equipped with an Android device and now helps sell prepaid electricity. This was only possible because of the web services we could build on the local software platform and not because of anything inherent in the hardware/meters.
Also, mobile service providers are also slowly getting interested in this space, as they have been with banking, health etc and they are our partners where we deploy. There are also interesting projects where the excess power generated at the base stations are distributed to the nearby populace.


NURU International Google tech talk ... (1)

bd580slashdot (1948328) | more than 2 years ago | (#39009577)

Scalable, sustainable community creation starting from family farm plots all the way up to a village bank, training new leaders and then replicating to the next community. Then NURU leaves ... you should check them out. Your interests overlap.
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