Why GoSol

Posted 12 April 2019 by Eerik Wissenz.

This is a key reading to understand our work and our vision. This text is a short version of a much longer text that unpacks all the arguments with calculations and sources. However, since climate change is accelerating, we feel it is better to publish and share this version in the meantime. Please send any comments or feedback to the author: eerik@gosol.solar.

 

Context

Our organization is at a critical juncture of requiring capital to expand. Our team has used all vital energy stores to get to this point – doing a lot with a little, which in the past was often times a useful context to develop the lowest capital technology possible that still has high power, ease of use and a short ROI – but now that this vital energy is consumed there is no fallback position, and we find it unlikely another group will recreate our work as effectively in the time we have to make the highest impact on climate change, which is now.

 

Failure to raise the right kind of capital from organizations that really want to push the maximum impact the technology can deliver, though would not be catastrophic as business would still maximize profits and the technology would still “get out there” slower, but more importantly several opportunities for truly high-leverage actions may be missed.

 

This essay is not for people who are skeptical that it is ever rational to consider other things than profit, nor for people who believe the climate crisis isn’t time sensitive and will just work itself out, or that believe there isn’t anyway much that can be done about it.

 

This essay is for people who are not only extremely concerned to do something about climate change but also consider the question of what is “the most we can do” in the time we have – rather than “what fulfils a minimum sense of doing something”. In other words, we see a difference between having “some” impact and having the impact needed to solve the problem.

 

Furthermore, this essay is for people who believe the climate crisis has no satisfactory solution without also solving poverty; that we have an ethical responsibility to both the earth and the people that do not benefit from the existing global infrastructure and are most vulnerable to its effects – not to mention that climate change may simply make nearly everyone we know today poor, by today’s standards of comfort, and so a solution that works in the context of poverty may ultimately be the only game plan possible.

 

Where We Are

Currently we have successfully piloted in East Africa, we have our first clients, an innovative software for industry and we have completed the last piece of the puzzle, which was to develop and pilot an education package that can be deployed in low income regions. Education is the key for rapid expansion in low-income regions; first, to learn how to effectively use and maintain the solar machines, second to develop the business and ecosystem skills needed to create the most value possible with the technology, and third for fabricating the technology locally.

 

 

The Implications of Cheap, Cost-Effective Solar Thermal

Although it is generally recognized that cheaper electricity is great and a big driver of economic development, it is, for whatever reason, usually not recognized that cheaper thermal energy has the same benefits for the same reasons, just for a different set of applications.

 

In addition to the nearly 3 billion people burning biomass for daily thermal (heat) needs, nearly all industrial production requires thermal inputs at various stages of material transformation. Roughly half of energy consumed in industry is for heating processes between 100° and 250°C.

 

Currently, the main limiting factor for using solar thermal energy in industry, as it is today, is that production is organized in large urban centers where land is expensive, installing any large equipment at all in a industrial area requires various heavy leveling and ground work, and large capital investment would be needed to retrofit solar thermal to existing complex fabrication systems (that were not built with solar thermal in mind), and, on-top of this, the existing air pollution of fossil based thermal processes and electricity production reduces the effectiveness of solar thermal devices by blocking out the sun and depositing particles on the solar collection surfaces.

 

Keep in mind that to run a large factory that consumes many megawatts of thermal energy, hectares of solar reflectors would be required which is far larger than the area of factory typically occupies. Unlike electricity, thermal energy cannot be transported long distances, so piping thermal energy from far outside the city where land is inexpensive is not viable (the thermal energy would need to be converted to either electricity or a chemical fuel, completely eliminating the efficiency and capital cost advantages of using the thermal energy directly for thermal processes).

 

Although "plugging in" solar thermal energy to today’s infrastructure is economic only in niche areas, production will ultimately follow the cheapest source of energy available, regardless of the sunk costs of the existing system.

 

In small farming and rural areas, the cost of land to place solar thermal machines is less a factor and there is plenty of space to run thermal processes, the cost of setup does not require costly commissioning or earth work, and air is usually cleaner (so more light reaches the surface and mirrors get less dirty). Furthermore, there is agricultural activity already existing with a large potential for added value thermal processing with thermal energy and sell higher-value transformed version of existing agricultural product. Examples are solar roasting, dehydration, baking and other thermal food processing as we have piloted in East Africa, South East Asia and South America.

 

By capturing this value added, skills and income will increase, which is setting the stage for larger and higher temperature solar thermal devices that can power productive industries including ceramics, textiles, and paper. The skills and capital of this second phase of development lays the foundation for powering high-thermal temperature process, including metal works and silicon.

 

Mitigation benefits

Emission displacement

Displacing a large amount of thermal energy industries to rural areas would significantly reduce embodied carbon emissions in exports to rich countries. A large component of global production today is based on thermal energy supplied by coal, either directly or through electricity when it is cheaper to burn the coal close to mining and transport the energy with electricity lines rather than trains.

 

This entire component of global emissions today can be shifted to solar thermal technological ecosystems that can emerge in low-income rural regions.

 

Reversing fuel based deforestation

With a cheaper source of thermal energy available, a balance can be created between using solar thermal devices and collecting and burning biomass. If biomass becomes farther away to collect or increases in price, it motivates reorganizing life and production to use a higher percentage of solar thermal energy (i.e. wait for the sun to be available for the tasks in question).

 

As solar thermal energy becomes cheaper, the distance / price threshold of biomass fuel changes proportionally.

 

Furthermore, what biomass is consumed can be converted to charcoal using excess solar thermal energy when the sun is shining. This is a way to store excess solar energy in the added value to the charcoal making process.

 

Currently, charcoal is often made in very inefficient “smothered mounds”. The highest cost-component of supplying a city with biomass fuel is the transport of the fuel from source points to sale points. This bottleneck of capital and fuel costs for trucks, motivates transporting as much fuel value as possible with each truck trip. Since charcoal has higher energy density than the source wood, fuel suppliers have a high motivation to transport only charcoal, converting the wood source to charcoal at the source points. However, since all charcoal suppliers can increase price as resources are reduced, there is no fundamental motivation to convert the wood to charcoal in an efficient way, and so even more wood is consumed than needed.

 

Through the above dynamic of the availability of cheap solar thermal energy pressuring fuel costs down, reforestation can re-encroach on where people are living. With available biomass and available solar energy, the conversion of biomass for charcoal for evening and and cloudy periods becomes much more efficient. Furthermore, with solar thermal charcoal conversion, the oils, esters and other evaporates of the biomass can be condensed and, depending on the plant, can have significant value, such as resins.

 

Second order mitigation

As this solar thermal productive system becomes more efficient, easier to use, at some point it becomes competitive as well in higher and higher income regions for the supply of most thermal energy based goods.

 

Since solar energy is available in so many places at little cost, but transportation always has a cost, once the ease of deploying solar thermal technology decreases below a certain threshold it is simply cheaper to start to produce goods locally instead of transporting/importing it into the region.

 

This is in contrast to fossil based production, where is it nearly always more efficient to produce at central fossil-complex locations and transport, using fossil energy, end goods to farther away markets.

 

Cheap enough solar thermal energy would reverse the principle that centralization is a more effective mode of production for a wide range of good. (The reason as to why this is a progressive process of becoming cost effective in wealthier regions is because labour automation is a requirement as well as sufficient synergy of a wide range of productive applications; whereas, these factors are not required in the roughly two thirds of the world that are low-income regions where labour costs are low, and so maintenance is not a large barrier, and furthermore there are smaller scale farmers that can easily add value to produce they already grow.)

 

This expansion of thermal production systems to higher and higher income regions, ultimately results in much smaller transport distances for a wide range of goods, further displacing fossil consumption currently needed to ship centrally produced goods.

 

Adaptation

General adaptive benefits

Increase in income is one of the key factors that can radically increase resilience to disaster, whether a bad growing season, prolonged drought or a massive storm.</p>

 

With a solar thermal energy device with very short payback that is easy to maintain, people can increase their income even if displacement is an eventual certainty.

 

Low-capital solar thermal devices that have a high ROI, can furthermore be simply rebuilt wherever people are displaced to by climate or other events, and so the skill keeps its value after displacement as well.

 

Since solar thermal devices are by nature decentralized and do not require a grid for efficient use (thermal energy cannot be transported large distances), solar thermal devices are largely immune to grid and other regional infrastructure collapse.

 

This is particularly relevant in low-income regions where grids are already very unstable, vulnerable to disruption and difficult to rebuild post-disaster, but it is also relevant in higher income regions.

 

Nearly all regions are vulnerable to grid disruptions of electricity and other fuels, and so the pre-positioning of low-cost and high-power solar thermal devices can significantly help in natural disasters in many high income regions as well.

 

Refugee benefits

Currently, refugee camps are often placed on marginal land that is already vulnerable to desertification and there is no way to stop people from collecting biomass if it is the only productive activity available. In parallel, NGOs must truck in large amounts of fuel in various forms to run the camps and settlements.

 

This situation is ideal for the benefits of low-cost, high temperature and locally built solar thermal devices, as building and maintaining the concentrators also provides employment and meaning to refugees, along with income and skills building benefits.

 

Education

In general, renewable energy is unlike seasonal agriculture or trading. Even with the short payback period of our product, renewable energy is a business where the investment in capital and learning is upfront and the value is generated over time. This requires sufficient business skills to plan and operate on the required time-frame, otherwise no net value is generated. Where these skills are lacking, education and entrepreneur incubation programs are critical for the deployment of the technology.

 

Although using the GoSol technology is intuitive and training on basic gestures and maintenance is fairly short, a rich educational context is required to fully motivate and empower new solar entrepreneurs.

 

Low-cost, locally-built, and high-temperature solar concentrators are also ideal for the education setting. Students can help build and / or assemble the technology and help operate and maintain it.

Furthermore, there are a lot of engineering, physics and other principles embodied in the technology and its use provides many teaching opportunities for diverse subject matters. In particular, social and environmental problems can be taught with a “solutions attached” approach which is more engaging.

 

Schools in low-income rural areas often cook meals and require purchasing fuel for this activity, and therefore there is also a direct return on investment from the use of the technology.

 

Furthermore, in low-income regions many of the applications of the technology may be unfamiliar and cannot be learned in a simple training. For instance, many of the students that participated in our baking course had never baked before, because ovens are not a common thing in their region.

 

In low-income regions, a rich and engaging education training must accompany the technology, and we have developed and already started this in Uganda within the context of the Smartup Factory program with Plan International.

 

Open Source

Since the technology can be built simultaneously all over the world and furthermore every new thermal application adds value to the existing ecosystem, the strategy with the maximum impact potential is to open source high quality engineering and educational material.

 

Reaching high ROI for solar thermal involves optimizing many factors. Although once a design is developed, it can be copied easily, developing a new optimized design is not trivial but requires software algorithms to simulate the physics and economics of the reflector, application, and operational constraints. This is further complicated by environmental, social and economic conditions changing from place to place, not to mention different materials and common tooling and fabrication methods.

 

We have accumulated a significant amount of software, prototyping and field experience that is not easy to recreate. The best starting point for any innovator who wants to develop a new application or to re-optimize an existing application and configuration for different conditions, is the full and complete documentation of the knowledge we have now.

 

With fully open sourcing the knowledge, thousands of innovators can be directly empowered as well as every educator and entrepreneur. This collective potential completely dwarfs the capabilities of a single organization.

 

Conclusion

Given the cost of deploying the GoSol technology relative the potential benefits, it is a high leverage, high growth-rate, impact potential on mitigation, adaptation and sustainable income generation in general.

Eerik Wissenz - April 2019


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