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Earth Software

How Pre-Paid Energy Services Aid In Rural Electrification 38

Posted by timothy
from the grateful-for-1st-world-problems dept.
First time accepted submitter superfast-scooter writes "I wanted to let the community know of a research project I've been fortunate to be part of — it's a rural electrification project called SharedSolar at the Modi Research Group at Columbia University. The project has 17 pilot sites in sub-Saharan Africa to-date, providing prepaid energy services to over 3000 people who did not have access to electricity — a fraction of the over 1.3 Billion worldwide. The lab has been developing custom software applications to integrate off-the-shelf hardware components, and also provide the operational and management mechanisms needed. Communications with the sites are over the mobile networks. Consumers can recharge their accounts using either cellphones, or visit a designated local vendor who can do it at the site using an Android app. Software residing locally makes each site autonomous, and the online platform allows for remote visibility, localized consumer interactions and integration with payment solutions. And we're planning on deploying soon in Haiti and Kenya."
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How Pre-Paid Energy Services Aid In Rural Electrification

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  • doh! (Score:2, Informative)

    by sgt scrub (869860)

    Please don't give U.S. utility companies any ideas. The last thing I need is to have to pay bills in advance.

    • Re:doh! (Score:5, Informative)

      by Richard_at_work (517087) <richardprice AT gmail DOT com> on Saturday February 11, 2012 @07:46AM (#39004099)

      In the UK you could have a pre-pay meter installed on request, and also if the electricity company deems you to be a bad risk (refusal to pay debts etc), and has been this way ever since I can remember (I remember my gran having to stick 50p coins into her meter when I was 4 or 5 - a good 30 years ago).

      • Why don't we just grind working class people up and feed them directly to loan sharks altogether. It would cut out predatory measures like these at least.

    • by Ihmhi (1206036)

      Yeah, the Africans will have the priviledge of getting half the service for five times the price, just like with pre-paid cell phones.

      • by Anonymous Coward

        getting half the service for five times the price, just like with pre-paid cell phones.

        Um, I (pre)pay $29.95/month for 1200 minutes, 3000 SMS/MMS, and 100MB of data with pagepluscellular. I can pay $55.00/month for unlimited minutes, SMS/MMS, and 500MB of data.

        Can you direct me to any plan where I can get unlimited minutes, unlimited SMS/MMS, and 1GB of data for $11/month? I might even be willing to sell two years of my connected life for that.

        Thank you in advance.

        • by Ihmhi (1206036)

          Do you live in America? The rest of the world is far, far better with cell phone pricing than we are.

          Typically in the States, I've found that you're looking at $0.25 a minute or so for prepaid plans in certain metropolitan areas. (YMMV, this is my personal experience in the NY/NJ area.)

          • True, Virgin Mobile USA is 20 cents per minute if you're on the cheapest $7/mo payLo plan. Such a plan is fine for people like me who use a cell phone for arranging rides, much as one might have used a pay phone before they disappeared. People in this use profile delay calls other than arranging a ride until they get to a land line with unlimited local minutes. They may use fewer than 400 minutes per year. But if you use your phone more than that, such as if you use it to replace a land line, you can sign u
    • by T-Bone-T (1048702)

      There are already prepaid electric companies. They are often the most expensive, too.

  • Not new (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Richard_at_work (517087) <richardprice AT gmail DOT com> on Saturday February 11, 2012 @07:44AM (#39004095)

    I just spent two weeks in Uganda, at a rural hospital in Kisiizi - there is no link to the national grid, so they generate their own electricity off of a waterfall that they have (really impressive).

    With the excess that they generate, they sell to surrounding villages - the way that they get paid is that each building they link to the Kisiizi grid they also install what is basically a pay-as-you-use black box, as simple as you like. The locals buy pre-paid vouchers from authorised sellers, and they text the code to a number (basically everyone in Uganda, poor or not, has a mobile phone - landlines are extremely hard to find) and their box gets credited with the value.

    It has really helped the villages surrounding Kisiizi, as while Uganda has a rural electrification project (again using pre-payment), its very very slow moving (I visited dozens of villages that were no more than 30 minutes off of major highways, and none of them have mains electricity). Fraud and theft of electricity has found to be very small, in general those in the villages are honest and pay their dues.

    • by instagib (879544)

      When reading about projects like these I'm always wondering how the poor people pay for phone usage, the vouchers, or even where they charge their phones, because I am under the impression that in these rural villages people exchange goods and services, not money.

      • Re:Not new (Score:5, Informative)

        by Richard_at_work (517087) <richardprice AT gmail DOT com> on Saturday February 11, 2012 @09:06AM (#39004351)

        I make a comment further down in reply to someone else, but largely its through sales of goods in markets, or other services - I was buying vouchers in denominations as small as 500 Shillings in Uganda, which is about the equivalent of 15 British pence, or 10 cents. And that would do for a 10 minute call.

        Charging is done at roadside stalls, usually either off of a mains supply where there is one (and where the person with the phone isn't connected to that supply), petrol generator or just by a kid or two sat all day turning a hand crank. You saw several of these at each roadside trading point, nothing more than a shanty shack with hand painted advertising.

        There certainly is money exchanged in rural villages, and these people travel for hours just to make the equivalent of a dollar or two through selling bananas or pineapples. You have to go really rural for money to disappear altogether - I did a lot of traveling in Uganda and we never came across a village which didn't have some form of money transaction going on.

      • Re:Not new (Score:4, Informative)

        by Russianspi (1129469) on Saturday February 11, 2012 @12:37PM (#39005633)
        I live in a rural village in Peru. There IS money here, even though everyone here is a subsistence farmer. There are some government programs that wind up putting a very small bit of money in people's pockets. Sometimes people will leave the village for a few months to work a menial job in town somewhere. And sometimes, people decide to grow a small amount of a cash crop (like coffee or cacao), which they can then carry two days to sell for $1-$2 per kilo. Once money is in the village, it gets passed around for work or in trade for produce or game.
  • In Tanzania, the electricity supplier, Tanesco, works in a similar way. Every house/appartment has a box/meter installed where the amount of kWh left is displayed. To recharge it, one needs to pay at distribution points by giving the number of the meter and the amount of money necessary. A code is generated, that works only for the meter it was meant for, which is typed into the meter. The entire country's electricity runs this way.
  • The thing that struck me immediately while reading the summary is: If you don't have electricity, how do you have a cell phone?
    • Read my other posts on the subject - my view fresh from Uganda, which while certainly it has developed parts, definitely has undeveloped rural areas.

  • Some clarifications (Score:4, Informative)

    by superfast-scooter (693095) on Saturday February 11, 2012 @12:35PM (#39005623)

    I'm the submitter and one of the SWE's on the project. Prepayment meters are not new, and are quite commonly available and in use. Distributing scratch cards for purchase and validation are also not a novelty, and as noted in the summary this is an option we provide. What seems to be uncommon is the use of software management systems at the sites themselves - a high-level one at that, and not logic embedded in hardware like the meters. Because of this, we're able to control several networked devices at the sites, and add on service features as we learn.

    Using intermittent renewables like we do (solar), we need to know how much was generated and ensure everyone is guaranteed a fair share. The software provides us that platform. We haven't implemented demand-response [yet] that will help with better management (for eg: cloudy-day scenarios), but do ration based on how much load is plugged in and how much is being consumed by each consumer. This helps to make sure that just a few heavy-duty consumers do not hog all the resources and exhaust the supply all by themselves.
    Also, because this is all in software, it doesn't matter what the source is as long as we use devices that we can network and get readings from. In this sense, the generation could be from solar, wind, hydro, or even the old diesel gensets. We went with solar, hence SharedSolar, but it's really SharedSupply.

    Another thing to note is that we can adapt and add more features to a service by changes in the software, without the need to make changes in the hardware configurations themselves. We can replicate the same model, or try new ones out, in different settings using different components as we see fit. For instance, we're evaluating different metering devices now but since everything about the service is in the distributed software platform, we only need to get devices that do AMR/AMI, without the need for even basic logic like prepayment. I wrote about where the software intelligence should sit depending on the quality of IP-based communications channels in a blog post here - http://sharedsolar.org/?page_id=13 [sharedsolar.org] .

    Also, just by having the software at the site, it allows us the possibility of tuning the service remotely, along with short turn-arounds between malfunctions and fix.

    The points others made about reduction in line theft etc are spot-on. One commenter asked if the consumers pay for the cellular interactions - they don't. This is actually a good case for having developed the local vendor solution the consumers seem to prefer - the entrepreneur who used to sell them kerosene is equipped with an Android device and now helps sell prepaid electricity. This was only possible because of the web services we could build on the local software platform and not because of anything inherent in the hardware/meters.
    Also, mobile service providers are also slowly getting interested in this space, as they have been with banking, health etc and they are our partners where we deploy. There are also interesting projects where the excess power generated at the base stations are distributed to the nearby populace.

    Thanks.

  • Scalable, sustainable community creation starting from family farm plots all the way up to a village bank, training new leaders and then replicating to the next community. Then NURU leaves ... you should check them out. Your interests overlap.

One possible reason that things aren't going according to plan is that there never was a plan in the first place.

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