On the difficulties of transporting solar equipment to remote places
Working at Smart Villages, we are very fortunate to work in some incredible locations. One of the most stunning is Kasese district in western Uganda. Located exactly along the equator, dominated by two national parks, and nestling in amongst the breath-taking Rwenzori mountains, the district of Kasese is one of, if not the most, beautiful locations I have ever seen.
However, working in the communities around Kasese comes with its own challenges. The gorgeous, winding mountain roads quickly become impassable death-traps in the rainy season. What we, as visitors, would consider a beautiful drive up to meet with communities in the mountains is in reality an arduous walk for residents with no means of transport, who are often carrying heavy produce on their backs.
In particular, one of the most challenging aspects of working in such a mountainous region is the challenge of transporting equipment. Solar equipment can be heavy. A single panel can be over 20kg, and our systems in these mountainous communities require 120 of them – that’s over 2.5 tonnes just in solar panels! Add to this some 60kg batteries, heavy cables, inverters, battery management systems, charge controllers and agricultural equipment, and it is easy to see how quickly this problem grows. In addition, this equipment is fragile. One bump on the 16km mountain road can easily crack a solar panel, rendering it practically useless.
It is therefore of critical importance to work out safe, low-cost methods of transportation, particularly for fragile solar panels. To this end, we held a brain-storming session. All ideas (no matter how expensive/ridiculous they may seem) are included below, alongside their pros and cons….
This would seem by far the simplest and most economic method. Medium-size Canter trucks are often used throughout Uganda for carrying large equipment and livestock.
- Pros: Easy to hire, fairly cheap
- Cons: May be unable to navigate high mountain roads, may result in cracked solar panels.
Trucks & Road-fixing
This adds to the idea above of just using a truck. With this method, we would work with the community beforehand transportation to fix any large potholes in the 16km road.
- Pros: Useful for the community anyway for future transportation projects, fairly cheap, minimal damage to panels
- Cons: Time-consuming, requires road-fixing equipment and co-ordination
The amount of produce, livestock, equipment etc. that an experienced motorbike (boda) driver is able to balance will never cease to amaze me. I have seen goats, chickens, mountains of bananas, entire families and 10ft metal poles all somehow balanced on a single, small motorbike. It is not too much of a stretch, therefore, to consider whether anyone could balance a solar panel or two.
- Pros: Cheap, minimal damage to panels (assuming driver avoids potholes and keeps the solar panel on their bike)
- Cons: Very difficult to balance, many trips required
By far the most expensive option, this was considered only if it was an option to request the Ugandan army help us with transportation. Sadly, we haven’t been able to find anyone willing.
- Pros: Very fast, no damage to panels
- Cons: Eye-wateringly expensive
Having done the calculations, this unfortunately did turn out to be as insane as it first sounded. Thanks to this helpful website: https://www.omnicalculator.com/everyday-life/helium-balloons, we know that we would require 1841×11” (standard size) or 3×98” (monster size) balloons and over 20,000 litres of helium gas for a single panel. Much as we all love the move Up, I don’t think we will get to recreate it in Uganda.
- Pros: We have a lot of fun with balloons
- Cons: Very wasteful, very time-consuming, pretty much impossible
One of the most obvious ways, if the most labour-intensive, is through people. The villagers in the communities in which SVRG works regularly make their way up the mountainsides carrying very heavy loads. Whilst it would be difficult, if there were 30 people willing to make the journey every day, the whole process would only take 4 days. The idea of trying to sell it to eager tourists as an eco cross-fit retreat also crossed our minds, but sadly covid restrictions are making travel difficult.
- Pros: Cheap, no damage to panels
- Cons: Labour and potentially time-intensive
To make it easier for the people involved, we considered rigging up some kind of skateboard/rolling log/bicycle system to allow people to pull the solar panels up like a sled. Whilst this would still take a lot of time, people could potentially take more, and easily take it in turns to pull them up the mountain.
- Pros: Easier than carrying, still cheap and no damage
- Cons: Still labour and potentially time-intensive
We have all seen images of elephants carrying multiple passengers, timber, trees, bricks etc. Humans have used them for years, with reports dating back to the 5th or 6th century BC. It is said that elephants in ancient China could carry towers of up to ten people at once into war. Whilst sources vary on how much an African elephant can carry on its back, the highest estimate I have found is 9000kg – more than enough to take all solar panels at once if we could balance them. However, we have to question the ethics of using elephants in this way – it is very difficult work, and many people oppose the use of elephants solely to help humans carry heavy things. Also, it turns out it is very difficult to find one.
- Pros: potentially very quick, requires just one elephant
- Cons: ethically not great, elephants are hard to source
This discussion led us, finally, to the solution that I truly believed to be the gold standard. Donkeys. They are sturdy, dependable, and affectionate. They are able to carry up to 25% of their own body weight and are used throughout East Africa to help in agriculture and carry water. Whether you agree or not, the majority of people have fewer ethical qualms about using donkeys than elephants as they are so widespread. It would be possible either to attach a cart with solar panels to the donkey to pull, or to strap two panels onto a harness, one on either side of the donkey. When we discussed this, it genuinely felt like the best solution. However, if you have read the title of this blog post, you may know where the problem lies. When we discussed this with our partners in Kasese, we found out there was just one small problem.
Someone has eaten all the donkeys.
This is apparently quite a scandal in Kasese and has been for some time. There used to be donkeys there and they were used often for farm work. However, over some unclear period of time, all the donkeys were taken, and it is believed that they have all been eaten. The mayor was brought in to try and establish who could have done this, and there have been other investigations, but no-one knows where all the donkeys have gone.
So, we are back to Square One. Potentially we could rent or buy donkeys to help with the transportation and try to ensure that they are safeguarded during and after the process, but this would be a pretty expensive method. If you have any other suggestions, please do get in touch. Sadly however, for now, we will just have to find a way to do it without donkeys.