Monday, November 25, 2013

A late post about the future of solar.

On Wednesday, I met with Prof. Shim Admassie from Addis Ababa University, who told me about the different ways his lab was trying to work on the problem of making solar panels easier to produce and cheaper.

But first, I'll tell you why this blog post is getting posted five days after the fact, and how it relates to the project.

On Thursday, I decided to take a bit of a detour from my guest house and its kitchen to try some of the local cuisine. As I was quickly finding out, taxis were costing me USD 5-7 per way, and part of my adventure was to get to where I wanted to go for lunch with a minibus. Minibuses, also called line taxis, also called "blue donkeys," are big, sky blue Toyota vans that are plastered with window decals of Jesus, belch out black smoke, and drive 18-20 people along a set route for between five and twenty-five cents USD per rider. It's the thing to do once you've decided that you've graduated from being totally ferengi (gringo).

So riding the blue donkey down the surprisingly smooth Chinese-subsidized pavement, I came across a restaurant similar in name to the one I wanted, shrugged my shoulders, and decided I'd eat there. Who knows, maybe it'd be a gem, right? I sat down, ordered lamb tibs and a bottle of water, and waited for lunch to come.

When lunch did come, I poured my bottled water into a freshly washed glass that was even still a little wet from the dishwasher. Wet with tap water.

For my carelessness, I spent the next day sleeping off a night of vomiting.

Of course, my family and I had a good laugh about it over Skype the next day, and I decided to just drink from the bottle from here on out. But what about people that drink from a river?

And here we have the problem that Prof. Admassie is trying to solve: develop better solar products to do things like pump clean water out of the ground. At present, the materials to produce a solar panel approximately break even with the money it saves through energy production, and the Ethiopian import tariff for manufactured goods (i.e., a solar panel) of 240% makes solar rather cost-ineffective. (Concordia Humana is working to reduce costs by having our panels manufactured in-country, and we've also learned that outages in the electric grid, to which solar panels are not tied, can damage a water pump. For our purposes, solar is the best option.)

Prof. Admassie at left, two graduate students
in laboratories at Addis Ababa University.
A few of the problems Prof. Admassie's department is trying to tackle include the ability to print solar cells using organic ink from a desktop-sized printing unit as well as reducing the cost of organic-material solar cells so that they can be more widely and cheaply produced than the present-day inorganic cells.

For PowerUp Ethiopia, this all comes back to how we can be even better in the future. We're building inorganic solar panels now because the need is there now and Prof. Admassie's technology is 5-10 years off. But what about the future? How can we use better, cheaper materials to deliver a more cost-effective product? The answer may very well be in his labs.

And for both Concordia Humana's work and Prof. Admassie's work, the best is yet to come.

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