WR14: Potential breakthroughs in productive use of energy in off-grid villages

Workshop Report 14

The ‘forward look’ workshop on potential breakthroughs in the use of energy in off-grid villages” was held in Churchill College, University of Cambridge on 18 December 2015. An introduction to the workshop’s aims and to the Smart Villages Initiative was followed by an introduction to the concept of “distributed manufacturing” for rural villages and accounts of new technologies for low-cost refrigeration and solar pumps.

The next session focused on the value that communities place on services in Kenya, an overview of low powered direct current (DC) motors, and a discussion of the merits of DC versus AC appliances and home systems for remote rural households in developing countries. After lunch, there were talks on 3D printing for rural villages and increased farming precision enabled by technology in the United Kingdom and developing countries. The final session consisted of a series of four quick-fire talks and discussions on a diverse range of topics: a new concept for low flow tidal power generation, an overview of student entrepreneurial programmes with the Cambridge Development Initiative, a study on methods for gauging what value end users in rural villages place on services, and an overview of the concept of frugal innovation, with examples from India and the developing world.

To conclude the workshop, participants discussed their views on the key messages to express to donors and policymakers.
Key findings may be summarised as follows:

  • There is a need to better understand the market for people currently living off-grid in order to predict future trends. What do they truly value? What local enterprises and powered equipment will be of the most utility to a community? These questions can be better answered through improved metrics and further study.
  • Distributed manufacturing can have potential for rural communities in certain contexts in the developing world. Tariff structures for importing of goods and component parts should be designed such that local manufacturing is not unfairly discouraged.
  • Further investigation is needed into the issue of low-power consuming DC appliances for off-grid markets. As an increasing number of these products are produced, further attention should be given to safety issues, improving electrical standards, and defining an optimally efficient home system. Research should be undertaken on other options such as using a “quasi-square wave” transmission form rather than standard alternating or direct current transmission.
  • Investment is needed in new and low-cost technologies relevant to off-grid development, such as new refrigeration or solar water pumping technologies.  However, there is tension between between open source design (and local manufacturing and assembly) and the protection of intellectual property in order to encourage investment.
  • “Proving factories” as used in the automotive industry could help speed the scale up of new technologies. Such proving factories typically employ 15 to 20 people: they take ideas and test out how they might be scaled by examining issues like sourcing components, required accuracy, and design for market.
  • The path to commercialisation of potentially important technologies, such as improved, cheaper brushless DC motors, is difficult. Governments and investors can aid the path to mass production.
  • It is important to be aware of potential game-changing technologies like 3D printing, which is rapidly improving in cost and quality and will likely have a role to play for remote communities in the near future.
  • Crowdsourcing and access to new data acquisition technologies to improve agriculture and help de-risk financial investments can provide substantial benefit for developing communities. Local governments should collect data and provide detailed agricultural, demographic, and other types of datasets to local businesses and investors.

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