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Affordable Lighting for Rural Communities

Posted 04-JUN-04

By Dr. Q. Isa Daudpota

About two billion people in remote areas of developing nations have no electric lighting, a commodity industrialized nations take for granted. Poor lighting in homes hinders children’s learning, affects family health and limits opportunities for a better life. A simple but revolutionary technology supplied to rural homes unconnected to the grid can light an entire rural village with less energy than that used by a single, conventional, 100-watt light bulb.

The best applied science results in the solution of a common problem that people have either overlooked or felt it couldn’t be solved easily. There is a lesson in this for those who seek out research problems in Pakistan. Our researchers often fail to identify doable problems because they are trained to mainly solve problems that interest others (usually their foreign Ph.D. supervisor’s) rather than ones that affect their own society.

The majority of our people who live in villages suffer due to lack of water, poor health provision, lack of communication infrastructure and efficient energy sources. The challenge for our scientists and engineers is to identify clever, economically viable answers to such issues. Many clever solutions are already there - people in other countries have found them and succeeded in putting into action. These need to be brought here and adapted in a manner that makes them sustainable under our conditions. For this to succeed, inputs from a range of experts from business, management, developmental sectors and entrepreneurs is often needed.

At times an outsider with a clearer vision and a great knowledge of technologies can help in solving our problems. This is what happened when in 1997 the Scottish-Canadian electrical engineering professor Dr Dave Irvine-Halliday spent a sabbatical in Nepal. While trekking in the mountains he looked into an unlit school room and asked himself if you could help. The question has already transformed his life and is likely to improve the lives of millions more.

Only one-seventeenth of the four million households in Nepal have a reliable power supply. It is poor country with average annual income around $200, and it is unlikely that these people could all be connected to the electrical grid. He faced the problem of providing the majority of people adequate and reliable lighting so that their dark hours could be used constructively.

This would allow children and housewives to study or work, small businesses to continue work and move away from fossil fuels for providing light. The latter is expensive and also pollutes the homes with smoke. Using solar voltaic panels with storage batteries for powering incandescent bulbs or compact economy fluorescent light has been tried but these bulbs utilize much power necessitating installation of high capacity solar panels which are still expensive.

The incandescent bulb is a mere heater that gives off only five per cent of its energy as light; the remaining 95 per cent vanishes as heat. All over the globe, tens of giga-watts of electricity are only producing heat so that we can get a tiny bit of light. What is worse is that this generation of power produces hundreds of millions of tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

In the US alone, electricity production cost $60 billion a year. About 20 per cent of it is used for artificial lighting comprised mainly of incandescent and fluorescent lamps. Of the $12 billion used for lighting, $11.4 billion is wasted! Enter solid state lighting (SSL) devices that promise to replace conventional sources and provide significant financial savings.

Estimates are that in the US, expenditure for lighting will be reduced by $100 billion over the period 2000-2020. By 2020, electricity used for lighting may be cut by 50 per cent, sparing the atmosphere 28 million tons of carbon emissions annually. It is this technology that Halliday latched onto.

The key development in this transformation was the invention of the gallium nitride (GaN) light emitting diode (LED), which made it possible to get white light from a semiconductor. It has been more than seven years since a then-little-known researcher Shuji Nakamura, at Nichia Corp, in the backwaters of Japan, stunned optical engineers by producing blues, greens, and purples out of GaN reliably.

The production of this high frequency light will greatly enhance the capacity of CDs, hard-disks and other devices that require the reading of data from a surface using coherent light. Blue light can also be converted efficiently to white light that is used for illumination.

In 1998, after a fruitless year of trying to develop a white LED (WLED), he was browsing the web when he discovered that Nichia had solved the problem of getting white light. Switching to Nichia’s 0.1 watt LED make him realize that light even from such a frugal source would be enough for a child to read from. He developed a multi-diode lamp to light up Nepalese homes through the newly formed Light Up the World Foundation, an organization that has in the past year or two been the recipient of an array of awards for innovation and development. Economics of white LEDs

Some order-of-magnitude estimates from Nepal presented by Irvine-Halliday are presented. They show the attractiveness of this technology for large parts of our country without connection to the grid.

Of the four million households countrywide without light in Nepal, supply of even a 25-watt incandescent bulb or an 8-watt compact fluorescent light to each require 100MW and 32MW, respectively. This alone will cost significantly, but when you factor in the environmental cost of such centralized power generating facility it seems well beyond what the poor country can afford.

Torches are an important feature of life in the developing world. These use up batteries at a high rate with the total life of a D cell around three hours, or an operation life of a few weeks. These are normally dumped causing the ground and water bodies to be polluted by mercury and other chemicals. WLEDs used instead of bulbs can extend the life tenfold to 30 hours. If rechargeable batteries are introduced the discarded cells can be further reduced. Pedal generators, solar voltaic and tiny hydro generator have been shown as viable sources for charging batteries that are used for WLEDs.

Economies of scale will only strengthen the case of such lighting. If production cost can be reduced with steady increase in spread and demand for such lighting, it would become possible for households to buy home-lighting systems without subsidy.

Consider 1-watt lamps that cost $1.50 each (this price is possible when scale-up happens) being used to service the two billion people currently without light after sundown. If we assume that there are five to six persons in each home then the number of homes lit by WLED is about 400 million.

Assume that two lamps of 1 watt each are used in each home, the total number of lamps will be 800 million. These figures are conservative as even poor families would want to buy more lamps once the price falls.

Right now price of a system for a single home with associated generating equipment and storage system, if required, varies from $40 to $60 depending largely upon the type of generating system chosen and the local distribution system used. For large projects, even now, it is expected that this price tag will immediately come down by 30 per cent even with moderate reduction in cost of WLED. For more info see

Now for a taste of what is happening in the fast-moving world of WLED based on the assessment of Sandia Labs, where a lot of research is proceeding. WLED have already begun to replace incandescent bulbs in many applications, particularly those requiring durability, compactness, cool operation and/or directionality (for instance, traffic, automotive, display, and architectural directed-area lighting).

Moreover, further major improvements are believed achievable.

Electrical-to-optical energy conversion efficiencies over 50 per cent have been achieved in infrared light emitting devices. If similar efficiencies were achieved in visible light emitting devices, the result would be a 200 lm/W white light source two times more efficient than fluorescent lamps, and ten times more efficient than incandescent lamps.

Pakistan and OIC

With the kind of high efficiencies that colored LEDs have it is inevitable that they will start being used in traffic lights soon. One hears that some foreign company has already started converting traffic lights in Lahore to LEDs. This process ought to be speeded up.

The web is a wonderful tool for bringing us interesting and important ideas. The early demonstration in a developing country of WLEDs was by Dave Irvine-Halliday who discovering them on the web. And I discovered his work also using this same tool. He is very keen to see this idea of lighting for the poor to spread to Pakistan fast. As I write, I have learnt that LUTW has a chapter in Pakistan; it started last November. LUTW (Pakistan) chapter has produced a video of Mubarak village (500 homes)which is only a couple of hours from Karachi, where they intend to launch their first project.

It is gratifying to learn about the Pakistani-American entrepreneur Pervaiz Lodhie who has been a producer of LED products in the USA for many years. See His work on renewable energy use in collaboration with the National Rural Support Program can become a model for other such efforts in this country and globally. See His support extends to the Alternative Energy Development Board (AEDB) which under its present plans intends to use these lights in 100 homes in a village not far from Islamabad. The current thrust to implement several large renewable energy projects in Pakistan by the newly formed AEDB (housed in the prime minister’s secretariat, and hence signifying the importance being given to it) shows that the time is ripe for such developments.

This project needs the blessings of several ministries, including that of the environment and science. For the WLEDs to be easily accepted by people social marketing and participation by communities is essential. The NGO-sectors role will be critical in its success.

The Centre for Innovative Technologies, where I work, can provide the focal point for spreading the word to technologists and decision makers in 57 countries of OIC. Lighting up the homes of nearly a billion people who live in these countries is a goal worth adopting!

(The writer is the project leader of Comstech’s new Centre for Innovative Technology, Islamabad. He was the founder project director of SDNP).
Publish Date: June 4, 2004

Internet Version of the Weekly Pakistan Link published in Los Angeles by Pakistan Link LLC

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