The University of Southampton engineers are leading an international project to provide sustainable electricity supplies to rural communities in Africa.
For the first time in their lives, villagers in some isolated African communities could thus be able to replace candles with electricity-powered lamps.
The Energy for Development project (E4D) has developed an off-grid electricity generation system, based on solar photovoltaic storage that can supply electricity directly to villagers running businesses in local centres. Those businesses in turn distribute electrical power to the rest of the community, enabling people to charge their devices, such as LED lanterns and mobile phones.
So far, inhabitants of many sub-Saharan areas had to rely on rather obsolete technologies to provide light or heat for cooking. Apart from candles, kerosene has been widely used, which is not only expensive but can also be detrimental to human health.
The pilot project operating in Kenyan village of Kitonyoni is celebrating its first birthday this week.
"We estimate up to 3,000 local people can now benefit from electrical energy provided by the project,” said Professor AbuBakr Bahaj, head of the Sustainable Energy Research Group at Southampton University and the principal investigator on the £2.6 million project.
“The school, health centre, churches and the 40 businesses have round-the-clock stable electricity, allowing them to extend their working hours and provide additional services such as information technology training, tailoring, hair dressing as well as the charging facilities,” he said.
The solar canopy of the PV system was designed have a dual function. Apart from generating electricity, it also acts as a rain collector, enabling storage of water and its sale to the community throughout the year."
The team believes the key feature making the system sustainable is the fact that the local community is directly responsible for operating and maintaining the plant.
The businesses involved have become shareholders of the local energy supply company and have a chance to generate additional income not only as energy suppliers, but also through membership fees.
This income covers all the running costs of the project and provides financial resources to the community.
The plant, producing 13.5 kWp of solar power in a week, and its mini-grid, are based on a modular concept, making it easier to adjust to the needs of various villages.
In the case of the Kitonyoni plant, it took E4D engineers, local contractors and villagers less than a week to assemble the plant.
"The transformation of trading centres is very clear: land prices have more than doubled, at least five new buildings have been completed, new businesses started, businesses' income has in most cases more than doubled and most importantly, a new maternity ward is now operational,” Professor Bahaj commented on the benefits the University of Southampton team has witnessed since the commencement of the project.
The team has already started building similar plants and setting up similar schemes in another village in Kenya and in Cameroon.
“There is now strong interest from governments and the private sector to adopt our approach, as well as from international funding agencies, to provide substantial funding to support the concept on a larger scale," Bahaj said.
The project is funded by the UK’s Research Councils and the UK's Government Department of International Development.