Until recently, it was considered either economically unfeasible or environmentally unsound to create a centralized electrical grid in many of these impoverished corners of the globe. Thanks to some pretty amazing innovation, new technologies are bringing the services that electricity can provide to these remote areas.
The first is a unique project that is bringing renewable power to the homes in the Mexican Sierra Madre. The Portable Light Project is a joint effort of Kennedy & Violich Architecture (KVA), The Rocky Mountain Institute, anthropologists, engineers and doctors.
According to The Rocky Mountain Institute, The project, “combines innovative technology with the traditional values of nomadic communities, to provide renewable and portable power to areas without centralized electricity supplies. The project brings advanced photovoltaic (PV) technologies to indigenous communities in the developing world, supplying them sufficient amounts of light without the reliance of attaching to power lines or grid.”
Essentially, lightweight solar panels are attached to traditional fabrics, which can be incorporated into clothing or carry bags. The panels absorb light during the day, charging up light-emitting diodes for later use. The units, which provide light for reading and working, produce up to eight hours of light from a three-hour solar charge.
"The Portable Light Project demonstrates how nanotechnology can benefit not only the "third" world -- where more than 2 billion people currently do not have access to electricity -- but also the "first" world, where energy-efficient design is increasingly important," said Sheila Kennedy, an architect from Kennedy & Violich Architecture (KVA) which is leading the Portable Light team.
The second innovation, solar cooking, has been providing a safe and environmentally responsible way to cook food for decades. Using less than a few dollars worth of materials, the solar cooker maximizes the principles of the greenhouse effect to capture sunlight in a foil-lined cardboard box. The sunlight enters the box through a glass panel on the top and creates enough heat to safely cook food or pasteurize water.
For the hundreds of millions of people who would ordinarily cook their food over wood or dung fires, solar cookers are a blessing. For the estimated 1.2 billion people who lack access to safe drinking water, learning how to pasteurize water using solar cookers can also be a lifesaver. According to the World Health Organization, in 23 of the world’s poorest countries unsafe water and indoor air pollution caused by burning solid fuel for cooking account for 10 percent of all deaths.
Beyond the immediate health benefits, solar cookers offer a long list of other advantages. In poverty stricken countries, families can spend up to 25 percent of their total income for cooking fuel. Solar cookers capture energy from the sun for free.
Because food is cooked at moderate temperatures, solar cooking helps to preserve nutrients. The lower cooking temperature also means that food can be left unattended all day and provides the option cooking of low cost, highly nutritional food options such as legumes and whole grains which needs to be cooked slowly for many hours.
Open cooking fires are dangerous, especially for small children. In addition to the risk of serious burns, the smoke from the fires can irritate lungs and eyes. Fires left unattended can spread, destroying what little shelter is available.
Collecting wood and other fuels for cooking fires can take many hours, exposing the gatherers to countless dangers from animals, other humans and natural perils. Solar cookers provide a fuel-free, safe way to cook while freeing up time for other activities.
Here’s the truly amazing part about all this. These technologies are opening the door for the developing world to acquire the services that electricity can provide. In the process, they may ultimately help to change how we use electricity ourselves.
Check out solarcooking.org for everything you could want to know about this innovative technology.
For more on the Portable Light Project visit www.portablelight.org.
For breathtaking pictures of The Portable Light Project, to make a donation to support this innovative work, or for more information about energy innovation and conservation, visit The Rocky Mountain Institute, visit www.rmi.org.