SunEdison unveiled its ambitious plan to bring power to 20 million people by 2020 at an event in New York this week, touting new renewable energy technology for remote areas.
The company’s Social Innovations Group is at the forefront of this effort, developing new business models and technologies to make renewable energy in rural communities sustainable. SunEdison has already forged partnerships with organizations in India and Nepal to harness solar power for villages, schools, health clinics, and hospitals.
The renewable energy specialist will also use its new Outdoor Microstation to achieve its ambitious goals.
The Microstation is a standalone power generator unit that can provide renewable and reliable electricity in hard-to-reach parts of the globe. It is also extremely durable, and is able to withstand extreme weather conditions. “Having electricity is the fundamental thing,” SunEdison CEO Ahmad Chatila told FoxNews.com, during the company’s Eradication of Darkness conference Wednesday. “In our country here, having electricity allowed us to have refrigeration, which eliminated a massive amount of deaths from poisoning over the decades. We are [now] a healthier society. Believe it or not, there are other places that still don’t have it.”
In remote areas, a lack of electricity can be life threatening. Speakers at the conference described places where midwives have to use flashlights during childbirth, with the nearest powered medical facility four hours away. Some 2.8 billion people cook with health damaging solid fuels, which leads to 4.3 million deaths a year. Two out of three people in Africa don’t have electricity. These are statistics that SunEdison hopes to change with the new Microstation, which comes in 3,500 and 650-volt models.
The Outdoor Microstation 3500 unit can power a rural community of 25 homes for 5 hours each night (including street lighting), while the 650-volt version can power up to 10 households in the same time frame. They can be installed rapidly- in four to six hours- and are low maintenance. Each unit houses a high capacity battery that can keep the Microstation operational for three days during spells of unfavorable weather.
Also saving lives (and money) is the company’s new solar water pump. On older power grids, electricity will often only come on at night, meaning farmers have to wander the fields in the dark to pump water for irrigation, which can prove dangerous. A woman in one of the films shown at the conference spoke of her husband passing away from a snake bite he suffered while farming at night.
The new solar water pump solves this problem - it operates every day from 7 AM to 5 PM - while at the same time drastically cutting expense. Fuel costs to operate a diesel generator add up, but with solar power the fuel is free. “Solar water pumps will reduce the cost of electricity for the farmer in a big way,” Chatila said. “The farmer then can improve the crop that they work on, and they can make more money. That’s why we do it - to make a lot more money for the farmer, and for us too.”
Though the conference main focus was undoubtedly SunEdison, partners such as nonprofits SunFarmer and GRID Alternatives, and Omnigrid Micropower Company (OMC), also spoke. OMC has partnered with SunEdison to power telecom towers (which can light surrounding villages in places like India) with solar energy. By pairing high-credit telecom companies with low-to-zero credit villagers, the entire endeavor becomes profitable and all parties benefit.
One fact hammered home during the conference was how cost-effective solar energy has become in recent years. “Solar power has gone from expensive to the cheapest source of power in five years,” Stefan Heck, a Stanford professor and one of the summit’s keynote speakers, said.
Chatila points out that while there will always be those who can’t afford solar power, people in impoverished areas can often afford power on a small scale. “You can always find someone who can’t afford this, but as we found out in many of these places, people can afford a lot of things - they just can’t afford a huge infrastructure, building big power plants with massive transmission lines that requires millions of dollars. That, they cannot afford. But to go and afford smaller chunks of investment - everybody can.”