From Solar Power to Kid Power

Stephen DeAngelis

September 17, 2008

Massachusetts set off a bit of a firestorm when it recently passed legislation requiring that 15 percent of the power purchased by utility companies operating in the state must be from renewable energy sources built in the last decade. Critics responded that in order to meet that quota Massachusetts would have to import much of the renewable power. To determine if those fears were founded, Navigant Consulting in Burlington, MA, conducted a study that examined “the state’s ability to use wind, sun, ocean, river, and biomass technologies to generate power” [“Study: Clean Power is Feasible,” by Erin Ailworth, The Boston Globe, 8 September 2008]. As Ailworth’s headline declares, the study determined that with proper investment, Massachusetts could produce all of the renewable energy required by the new law.

“Wind, sun, water, biological waste – Massachusetts has the potential to turn them into a combined 10 million megawatt hours of power annually by 2020, according to [the Navigant Consulting] study. … In the past, such projects have been hindered by complicated permitting processes, objections over siting, and uncertainty about their financial viability and the level of local demand. Now, though, getting solar panels, wind turbines, and other renewable energy technology in place should be easier, said David Barclay, executive director of the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association. [Massachusetts Governor Deval] Patrick recently signed several ‘green’ bills into law, including one that requires utilities to invest in efficiency and another that’s designed to boost the creation of a green-jobs sector.”

Massachusetts has become a trendsetter in several sectors, including healthcare, over the past several decades. Undoubtedly people will be watching to see how its renewable energy program works out.

“Philip Giudice, head of the state Department of Energy Resources, [noted,] ‘The challenge has been where can Massachusetts get its renewable energy? And there has been a question of how far away are we going to have to go to get it,’ Giudice said. The study, he added, shows the state will be able to hold its own. ‘It sort of flies in the faces of the folks who said, “Gee, that’s great for Massachusetts, but you’re going to have to go to Canada to get all that stuff,”‘ Giudice said. Seth Kaplan of the Conservation Law Foundation, an environmental advocacy organization, said he was heartened by the study, but cautioned that building renewable energy capabilities is only one step.”

As I’ve pointed out in previous posts, generating power and connecting it to existing transmission grids is one of the challenges that will have to be faced by the growing alternative energy sector. All of this state-of-the-art technology is great for places like Massachusetts that can afford it, but what about renewable energy for places mired in poverty and off of any electric grid? That was a challenge tackled in Ghana by a team from Brigham Young University [“Y electricity project leads to changes,” by Samantha Strong, BYU NewsNet, 8 September 2008].

“The village of Essam is off Ghana’s electric grid. It is only one village of many in need of power. Most children in Essam do their weekly homework assignments in groups, huddled around kerosene lamps or bobo candles, homemade of sand and wax. Often, one child reads aloud to the others. The light is too dim for everyone to make out the words in their own book. ‘Kerosene can get inside your book, and it can make you sick,’ 15-year-old Ebenezer Anti said. Junior High students like Anti compete with city kids who have plenty of light to study by, and according to Solomon Tenadu, it is unlikely that the problem will be fixed in the near future.”

Although Ghana has recently discovered oil and is expected to become a more prosperous nation, electrifying the country with anything that looks like a modern grid system is several decades away at best. That is the challenge that faced the team from BYU. The challenge was brought to the attention of university by Ben Markham, who had served as a missionary for his church in Ghana. While in Ghana, Markham noted that one thing the children of Ghana had in abundance was an enthusiasm for play. When he returned to the United States, he came up with the idea to give schools the opportunity to generate their own power through playground equipment and founded a company called Empower Playgrounds Incorporated (EPI).

“He enlisted a group of mechanical engineering students from BYU to design a [playground] merry-go-round that would generate electricity. And that they did. The motion of the merry-go-round the students designed as a capstone project in 2007 generates enough electricity to charge between 12 and 24 lanterns, depending on how often children play on it. Although the efficiency of the system is still being tested, EPI technical intern J.J. Campbell is sure the lamps are brighter than the fuel lamps villagers use at home, and EPI provides the lanterns to students free of charge. The lanterns are distributed to groups of students who take them home in the evenings to study by. Headmaster N.E. Kitson-Dodoo of Essam’s Golden Sunbeam Montessori School appointed teachers George Yeboah and Robert Kudiabor to supervise the distribution of the lanterns. Yeboah and Kudiabor selected six children to serve as stewards of the lanterns, or ‘lantern leaders.'”

Often items provided for free are devalued and, therefore, mistreated, abused, or ignored. The idea behind appointing lantern leaders is that with the honor comes a sense of responsibility.

“The lantern leaders are responsible for taking the lanterns home, hosting study groups each night, recording when the lanterns are switched on and off, and returning them to the school to be recharged when needed. Currently the school has five groups of six students, with two lanterns per group. Though the lanterns only give light to 30 of the school’s 273 students, Kitson-Dodoo said he has already noticed positive changes. Kids are going through material faster, understanding concepts they previously could not and asking for more, he said.”

Key to the lantern lending program, of course, is the merry-go-round. If children don’t play on the equipment, electricity doesn’t get generated and lanterns don’t get charged.

“Getting children to play on the merry-go-round is also much easier than [Kitson-Dodoo] expected. ‘We thought it would have to be something we instruct the kids to do, but they love it,’ Kitson-Dodoo said. ‘It’s fun all the way.’ Not long after its installation, the merry-go-round had to be taken away for repairs. The headmaster remembers the children being sad and quiet. ‘They thought it wouldn’t be back,’ he said. After it was repaired and returned, teachers said the children’s jubilation could be heard from down the road.”

With the success of the Essam project, EPI has plans for expanding the merry-go-round electrical generation program elsewhere in Ghana.

“Essam is the first of five villages to have merry-go-rounds installed as part of EPI’s pilot project. After meeting with Ghana’s Ministry of Education, the EPI team visited 18 villages off the electric grid. After assessing the villages, EPI gave applications to 10 and eventually selected five of the applicants. Villages were evaluated based on the strength of the PTA, the relationships of teachers and headmasters, community unity, distances children walked to get to s
chool and the discipline levels of the children. EPI executive director Sarah Hall said it was important the merry-go-rounds be placed in environments where EPI’s objectives were likely to be accomplished. ‘We wanted to find out if kids were running amok hurting themselves, or if the teachers were supervising,’ Hall said. ‘We want the equipment to be safe as well.'”

As the program matures, ideas for what can be done with the generated electricity beyond charging lanterns are likely to emerge.

“In addition to providing light and recreation to students, which will hopefully increase learning capacity and school attendance, EPI seeks to provide schools with new teaching tools. Three professors from BYU went to Ghana earlier this year to meet with SACOST, an organization at the University of Winneba that develops science lessons based on activities children see in their communities. Professors Joan Dixon, Steve Shumway and Val Hawkes also met with the Curriculum Resource Development Division of Ghana to start plans for hands-on science lessons that use the merry-go-round to illustrate science concepts such as energy transfers. The professors also brought along a few science demonstrations to show to children in the pilot schools.”

To ensure that the program sustains its momentum in Ghana, EPI hired a local country director, Solomon Tenadu.

“Tenadu, who was raised in Ghana, said he went through primary and secondary school without any equipment to demonstrate the basic principles of science. ‘Steve’s demos were much more meaningful to me than all my time in school,’ Tenadu said. ‘If kids can conceptualize science, they can perform better at the secondary level.’ EPI hopes to make sure the merry-go-rounds are running smoothly in Ghana before expanding to other countries. Ammon Franklin, a graduate student at BYU, will be spending the next few months evaluating the socio-cultural impacts the lanterns have. He will be investigating the power structures and economic activities in the communities before and after the lanterns are implemented. … He will also be exploring other possible ways lanterns could benefit communities, such as making adult literacy programs possible.”

EPI is already thinking beyond the merry-go-round program.

“With the help of Kweku Anno, manager of K.A. Anno Engineering located in Ghana’s capitol, EPI is also developing an electricity generating zip-line. Future plans include a generating swing. Anno has been involved with the project from the beginning. He reviewed early merry-go-round designs, making sure plans were tailored to fit the manufacturing facilities he has available. For the past three months, Anno has worked alongside Campbell, who is a physics major at BYU, to perfect the design. He also worked with a group of BYU interns who came to Ghana for 10 days earlier this year. Anno was impressed by the way the group split up assignments so that everyone had a role to play. … He said the interns showed his employees how knowledge of mathematics can make engineering easy.”

Things I like about EPI’s approach include that it enhances Ghana’s domestic capacity, fosters local businesses, and invests in Ghana’s human capital. Like many such projects, the return on investment goes far beyond finances.

“For those involved, the project is something worth investing in. Visiting the village at night was a defining moment for Hall. … Hall said her experience in Ghana has also shown her that all kinds of skill sets are needed to help developing countries. ‘We need doctors, lawyers, engineers, biologists and on and on,’ Hall said. Campbell said he was sold on the idea the first time he heard about the organization. He was excited about the innovativeness of the concept, and thrilled to find a way to use his knowledge of physics to better the world. Although there may still be more modifications ahead, Anno aims to have five more merry-go-rounds built and installed by the end of the year. Anno said they are lucky their biggest problem is getting the kids off it long enough to improve it.”

Those of us in the developed world take electricity for granted. In countries where reliable electrical generation remains unavailable, they understand that development is stymied when power is unavailable. For villages like Essam, access to electrical power (even in the form of a playground merry-go-round) is a modern miracle.