I recently attended the World Future Energy Summit. I was unable to attend the conference but the visitors and speakers were prestigous, Wen Jiabao, Premier of People’s Republic of China, Francois Hollande, President of France, Christina Fernandez, President of Argentina, Hwang-sik, Prime Minister of the Republic of Korea, Nassir Abdulaziz Al-Nasser, President of the UN General Assembly and Ban Ki Moon UN Secretary General. With such illustrious guests you could rest assured that there was no danger of anything important or interesting happening.
The exhibition was an endless sea of stalls, some meagre tables with no table cloth and a pile of leaflets, others colossal corporate monuments with animated displays, artwork, meeting rooms and sometimes water features.
I would not have been surprised if they would one day add their own cafeteria and security. Unsurprisingly these were boring and the only interesting things would be find in the smaller booths, and even then rarely, but I will come to those later. If I were to take a guess over half of the stalls were dedicated to solar power, whether that was cells, power management systems, planning, building or cleaning. Rows of companies touting their innovative, world leading, efficient, affordable, cutting edge systems but for what I could see there was rarely anything to distinguish between the clones. They were all aiming at large scale installation that would have to be funded by some form of government. At this scale companies are distinguished only by their propensity for failure, and those that achieve the lofty goal of actually meeting their obligation are lauded and raised onto pedestals. Make no mistake, I have respect for the work and progresses that have been made in solar technology, what I do not respect is seeing company after company that has repackaged standard solar as innovative. There is no shame in delivering a good and working solution.
There was one that did catch my eye. The Conergy SolarFamulus Air, spec sheet and article in PV magazine. A tiny bit of curved corrugated iron has eliminated to problem of vertical lift forces due to wind on low bearing roofs. This is only a minor curiosity but according to the rep they have undergone cyclone testing, we went into some details though they escape me now, but I results were great. If this is true, simply wow, real game changing innovation give me a tingling feeling that clever marketing struggles to recreate. Pass this on to people are involved with energy projects in tropical storm prone areas, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
The rich world was running away into sustainability, and only six stalls cared about the poor. It is unsurprising that there was little innovation here, the margins are small and by and large we know how to do this. To put it overly simplified, a blending of participation, partnership, funding, finance, clear ownership, technical oversight and operational guidance. I saw three stalls dedicated to this. Technology helps but is not the biggest problem. New technology is a small part of the solution, the gains are to be made is delivery structures.
RETRACTION:23-June-2013 I was wrong. Totally misunderstood their business model. See here
Other items were far less inspiring. I truly hope I have misread the situation. [I really did]. Families in Sub-Saharan Africa spend up to $76.80/year on kerosene and batteries, and up to the same amount for charging their mobile phones. This can get into $200 in very remote areas. One outfit was touting a small solar cell , an LED light, and a yellow box with numbers as an energy solution for poor communities. Their business plan was solar as service. Sell units to local providers who then hand out the units, but retain ownership. People then buy credit by means of scratch cards from these providers and punch the numbers into the yellow box that then allows a fixed amount of energy to flow from the solar panel to whatever you were charging. [Battery is only limitation up to a week. 8 hours figure is just to provide a rough guide of max capacity] The Yellow box had some cables to allow different items to be connected to it. On average people were spending $5/month on the cards. I asked them about the hacking rate, they were apparently quite low to my disappointment. I understand the idea of an interim measure between kerosene lamps and solar powered LED lights (and all the other uses of solar cells) since the capital required is quite high for households, but what is wrong with a simple hire purchase or microloan (not microfinance, slightly different)? Pay as you go solar misses the advantage of the small payments contributing towards the ownership of the system. [It was hire purchase in a PAYG costume. The system can be unlock or upgraded after 18months. Company makes $35 profit on $50 unit] The users have to pay for rental and save up for this separately. They end up poorer, when that happens you have failed. Another advantage of pay as you use services where ownership is retained by the vendor is the maintenance provided for the equipment. However, now you have a situation where the user does not own the equipment and is not allowed to repair it,and no way to ensure the vendor meets his responsibility. [I didn’t get to ask about repair responsibility] A terrible system full of unnecessary complications that does nothing but profiteers from poor people while only slightly improving lives in the short term, worsening it in the long.
EDIT: I just realised I forgot to mention another great flaw in the PAYG solar systems. The scratch card supply chain. When, not if, there is a disruption, due to causes from the extreme of natural disaster and conflict down to the mundane of a company failing or the local outlet catching on fire, the device stops working. Added modes of failure, unconnected failures from far flung regions now tied to the functioning of the device,
to no end except profit. [Virtual and direct mobile payments are possible to route around this]