My research on technology for development has taken me literally around the globe. I’ve had the opportunity to visit numerous schools and speak with many teachers, principals, administrators, bureaucrats, ministers, and parents. One point of view that, to me, seems to be universal is the desire to get computers into schools. People see such technology as having the possibility to improve educational opportunities for their children, and for the youth in their village/region/country. This may not be their first development priority, but it is a priority nonetheless, with overwhelming support.
The majority of schools I’ve visited look somewhat like the pictures above: the infrastructure is basic, to say the least, and they lack the most fundamental infrastructural component necessary for using computers in the schools: electricity. There is no possibility of an electrical grid that their government is going to build. No outlets in the wall. Some schools lack desks and tables as well. But the lack of electricity presents a more complicated hurdle for these schools, if they are to get computers.
In the absence of a grid, there are other possibilities for powering computers. Generators are the most common method for providing off-grid electricity, at least that I’ve seen, across the developing world. Unfortunately, the gas or diesel to power the generators tends to be extremely expensive in developing world locations, and the generators tend to pollute. So what about renewable energy? Wind and hydro power are not feasible in all locations. Solar, on the other hand, is far more widely applicable. Most locations across the globe can harness the sun’s energy through solar panels to create electricity. (Germany, the current world leader in solar power, on average, has more cloudy days than sunny in a year!)
Yet systems for creating solar power, up to now, have not been a simple proposition. Solar systems require quite a bit of technical knowledge and comprehension (How much energy do we need to generate? How does that translate into watts? How much energy will be lost in the conversion process? How many days do we need to calculate that the system should keep running in case of clouds, etc.? What percentage do we want the lead acid batteries to discharge every day—and thus how large do they need to be?) Not to mention the number of components involved in setting up a system (panels, wiring, charge controller, storage batteries, inverter, etc.) and the fact that they are rarely—perhaps never—sold all together. (Which are the best brands for each component? Where do I order them? How do I know if they’ll be able to ship to Timbuktu? When there’s a war going on nearby…) If one isn’t a solar expert, or doesn’t have one on staff, where do you even make a start at answering any or all of these questions?
We have been working to simplify the solar powering part of the system down to the bare minimum of complexity; to create a plug-and-play solar solution for powering computer labs in schools in off-grid locations where infrastructure is limited, and the prospects of a solar expert on-site are slim-to-none.
We came up with the Solar-Computer-Lab-in-a-Box. It includes:
- 6 Intel Classmate laptops
- 2 x 85 watt solar panels
- Charge Controller
- Comes pre-wired
- The shipping box transforms into the workstation table
- This is a modular, turnkey, all-in-one, plug-and-play solution!
- It can be set up in a couple of hours, using minimal tools, by a non-solar expert.
- The boxes fit 4-to-a-pallet, to minimize shipping costs.
- The system is Direct Current (DC)-only. The panels generate DC power, and the laptops run on DC power: there is no need to convert the electricity to AC and lose energy in the process or include an extra piece of hardware (the inverter) which is usually the first component in a solar system that fails, anyway!
- There are no additional batteries besides those in the laptops.
- All component parts except the Charge Controller are off-the-shelf, which is a conscious choice to enable ease of replacement. Our team has had to build the charge controller, because no one else out there is making one that does what we needed it to do.
- Mobile phones can be charged through the USB drives in the laptops.
This solution also addresses some key concerns:
- Teachers and administrators I’ve spoken with want computer labs in their schools: so they know that the computers will be there and they can plan their lessons accordingly (as opposed to when laptops are allowed to be brought home and rarely or never make it back to school, and/or are broken at an alarmingly high rate).
- One technician can suffice for a given school, to maintain the system, and possibly to assist the teachers in using/learning the technology.
- The solution is not targeted/marketed at schools themselves, but at the organizations that are responsible for managing the schools: Governments and Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs): Ministries of Education and Faith-Based Organizations, for example, that support, fund, manage, and run schools. This means that these organizations are responsible for financially supporting the maintenance of the technology, but even more importantly perhaps, they are responsible for training and supporting the teachers—their employees!—how to use this technology that the vast majority will never have used before.
I have been leading an entrepreneurial course at IIT for the past semester that has worked on designing and building a prototype of our Solar-Computer-Lab-in-a-Box. We made our first model in time to be displayed for our university’s IPRO Day in April 2012. Here’s a link to our website: Solarcubed.org
Our second model has just been finished. We spoke about our product at TechWeek in Chicago yesterday (June 23).
Stay tuned for the next post, to learn about our first deployment in the field.