Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Solar to Light up African Villages

Electric power. We flip a switch, turn it on, take it for granted. The lights, the microwave, the flat-screen TV; and now the Leaf or Volt or some other electric car.

But in Africa, electricity remains a rare, hard-earned luxury. Blackouts as long as 12 hours are common, even in the large cities, while homes in villages far off the grid are warmed by wood fires and glow to kerosene light.

James Tataw, owner of San Jose-based Spectrum Solar Electric, and his friend and fellow solar entrepreneur Dennis Forsberg of El Dorado Hills-based Sunbolt Energy Systems plan to change that.

Their charge: "Illuminate Africa. One village at a time."

"There are some people who haven't ever seen power," Tataw said. "They need energy, but they don't need a lot – light bulbs, TV, radio."

The Cameroon-born Tataw, a master electrician and solar business owner, last year established the nonprofit African Solar Electric Light Foundation, or ASELF, to deliver small-scale, off-grid solar light and power to homes and businesses in Cameroon and, eventually, across Africa.

Today, Tataw is ASELF's chief executive officer and Forsberg the foundation's executive director.

"James is committed to helping people," Forsberg said. "He sees a need and a solution."

Forsberg met Tataw two years ago at a solar installer school in Rohnert Park.

Both were looking to reinvent their careers by moving into alternative energy: Forsberg, a general contractor, turning his career in a new direction when the housing market collapsed; Tataw, after years working for utilities in his native Cameroon and in California before starting his own electrical business.

"I started my own business. Then when solar (energy) started booming, I went right into solar," Tataw said.

The two became fast friends, the solar energy business rekindling Forsberg's early interest in green technology – he holds a degree in environmental planning from UC Davis – and sparking a way for Tataw to give back to his homeland.

"He has been talking about small solar-power home systems for a long time. We had talked about a partnership, but the first go-round we didn't get funding," Forsberg said, citing the struggling economy that pushed both men into solar.

The need is great. The United Nations' Africa Renewal program reports only 5 percent to 20 percent of Africans – except in Egypt and South Africa – have direct access to electricity. The number is even smaller in rural areas.

Worldwide, the United Nations estimates about 1.5 billion people have no access to electricity, while another billion more have access only to unreliable networks.

But small-scale efforts like ASELF's are bubbling up across Africa as renewable energy technology becomes more portable and reliable.

And new investment in African sustainable energy continues to rise, from $200 million in 2005 to $2.5 billion as of 2009, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance.

ASELF plans to sell, ship and install an initial 25 solar home systems in Cameroon to demonstrate their effectiveness, Forsberg said.

Basic 240-volt solar power systems are relatively compact, run on either direct or alternating current and can operate exterior and interior lights, fans and a television set from five to 12 hours a day, depending on the appliance.

The panel is about the size of a table top. Circuit breakers, a charge controller and a solar inverter that converts direct current into alternating current to power home appliances can be mounted on a wall or stored in a case.

Systems will be built at Forsberg's Sunbolt facility in El Dorado Hills. The foundation will train technicians to assemble and install systems.

Tataw envisions the small systems being used by urban dwellers as a clean energy alternative to diesel generators and in rural areas far from grid power sources.

Larger systems could be used in medical clinics to refrigerate medicines, vaccines and blood; to power water pumps for farmers; and to send light and electricity to schools, giving students access to computers and the Internet.

But the work is just beginning. Funding is the priority.

The team has fine-tuned its business plan to take to potential donors and investors.

The fledgling foundation is also investigating grants and microloans and is reaching out to the Bay Area's growing African immigrant community and to Africans back home through the foundation's website, aself.org, Facebook and user groups.

The systems cost about $2,500. Money from their sales goes back into the foundation to buy more equipment and to pay installers and shipping costs.

Tataw and Forsberg say they have interest from Cameroonian families in the United States who want to buy the equipment for relatives back home.

"We have contact with Cameroonians, people from Gabon, Central African Republic and Nigeria in the Bay Area. We're hearing good feedback. They like the system," Tataw said. "Nigeria, Ghana, Gabon – through our network and Facebook we're hearing, 'When are you starting? When are you coming?' "


No comments: