Solar Power isn't Feasible!

Solar Power isn't Feasible!
This cartoon was on the cover of the book "SolarGas" by David Hoye. It echoes the Sharp Solar slogan "Last time I checked nobody owned the sun!"

Monday, March 10, 2008

Solar CITIES in Darb Al Ahmar: Results and Vision

Picture shows the Solar C3ITIES office and home of T.H. and Sybille Culhane with its community-built solar hot water panels, near the Aslan mosque modelled in Google Earth.

Toward a comprehensive solution set for a healthy environment and economy
In the spring of 2006 a group of 25 Urban Planning graduate students and faculty from Dr. Randall Crane's class at the University of California, Los Angeles visited the AKTC and were given a presentation by Seif Rashidi on the initiatives undertaken in the area. The group was deeply impressed, and one of the UCLA Ph.D. candidates, Taha Rassam Culhane, on fellowship at AUC, decided to focus his thesis on the issue of household hot water service and demand in Darb El Ahmar.
When preliminary research began to indicate that as much as 25% of the community had no formal water heaters (now confirmed by a survey of 230 households conducted by the AKTC survey team) and that those who did have water heaters were often reluctant to use them or repair them and were returning to dangerous and inconvenient stove top heating because of the rising costs of gas and electricity, Taha began to look for ways to bring sustainable renewable energy to the area through local capacity building.

Picture shows the AKTC project area in Google Earth with 230 household heaters plotted on the buildings. Red = electric appliance, Green = Gas appliance, Dark Blue = Butagas stove, Yellow = Babur.
Architects Kareem Ibrahim and Naveen George gave Taha and AKTC carpentry trainer Mustafa Hussein, who is a local resident, an opportunity to experiment with the possibility of building solar hot water systems out of local and recycled materials using local expertise.
Picture is of 23 year old Mustafa Hussein and his hand-made solar hot water systems, one on his family's centuries old roof next to the wall being restored by the Aga Khan foundation at the base of Al Azhar park the other across from the Darb Shuglan complex. Both were placed to be visible by visitors to the park to increase environmental awareness.
With collaboration and support of graduates from the AKTC plumbing trainee program such as Mohamed Diab, Taha and Mustafa constructed the first three of many functional low cost systems on the roofs of three buildings visible from Al Azhar park. One was placed on Mustafa's home by the Aslan gate, and two on renovated buildings -- 72 Darb Al Shuglan, across from the Darb Shuglan complex, and 4 Abu Huryeba, near the Aslan square renovation area.
A recent US AID small infrastructure grant of $25,000 awarded to the local group, which calls itself "Solar C3ITIES" (Connecting Community Catalysts Integrating Technologies for Industrial Ecology Systems) , is now enabling members of the Darb El Ahmar environmental NGO and members of the nearby Zabaleen NGO Roh El Shabab to work together to build dozens of systems in both communities, sharing experience materials and expertise.

(Picture shows Darb El Ahmar (center, with hot water survey markers showing that 25% of the households heat water with the stove (blue)) in relation to the Zabaleen community of Zurayib across the City of the Dead (also with hot water survey markers, showing that 65% of the people heat water with the stove (blue)). The two communities are now working together to build their own solar and biogas fueled hot water systems as part of an urban industrial ecology effort.)

Plastic and recycled materials: local innovations bring down cost
Because the Solar CITIES industrial ecology project is a local initiative, involving craftspeople from the community, and not an exogenous project (Taha and his wife Dr. Sybille Culhane, though foreigners, now live in one of the renovated buildings), there is a keen sense of participatory development innovation and cost consciousness that makes the effort more likely to endure. The key to bringing cost down turned out to be local experimentation in the use of indigenous plastic parts, most of them recycled from the Zabaleen community. Many of the boxes housing the solar heat absorbers are made from pressed recycled plastic bags, the plumbing uses recycled polypropylene pipes, and recycled plastic shampoo barrels are used as pressure regulating cold and hot water storage tanks. These tanks are fitted with plastic Float Valves (Owamas) and durable plastic fittings supplied by Egyptian inventor Magdy Zahran.

(Picture: Local inventor Magdy Zahran, reknowned for his water conservation technologies, regularly visits the Solar C3ITIES project to lend a helping hand and new ideas, an example of how AKTC initiatives inspire widespread participation.)
Local initiatives inspire widespread participation
In addition to the contributions of Magdy Zahran and other engineers from Egypt and abroad, local renewable energy systems businessman and engineer Alaa Watidy from RSD technologies in Madinat Nasr generously supplied the Solar C3ITIES project a state of the art German-designed/Chinese-manufactured vacuum tube solar collector so local plumbers and residents could try out and learn about the latest technology.
Picture: Local master plumber Mohamed Diab and Engineer Alaa Watidy install professional vacuum tube solar collector on building 72; Solar C3ITIES coordinator Mahmoud Dardir, a Darb El Ahmar native, joins the home-made and professional systems together.
With affordable solar hot water systems providing both cold water and hot water rooftop storage for 24 hour availability in an area where water service is frequently cut, new possibilities for integrated technology/environment/economic solutions become conceivable and the solution space is widened.
In February of 2008 at a meeting of the local environmental NGOs and community members at the Aga Khan Trust for Culture in Darb El Ahmar, a discussion centered on why the rooftop gardening projects were experiencing sustainability challenges and how integrated industrial ecology solutions – merging the domestic hot and cold water project and the urban agriculture project -- could help bring sustainability to the environmental initiatives. During two hours of very fruitful discussion, the community applied the heuristic "don't dwell on the multiple factors that led to failure, and what doesn't work; figure out instead how rooftop gardens can integrate with the real and perceived needs of the stakeholders, and how they might satisfy multiple needs if integrated with a larger ecological system, such as solar hot water systems". This is the "ecological rationality" approach championed by the ABC Research Group -- "rationality that is defined by its fit with reality".

(Photo: Samiya and Sou'ad, members of the Darb Shuglan/Darb El Ahmar local environmental committee, Samiya's children and Solar CITIES coordinator Mahmoud Dardir observe the integrated solar hot water/rooftop gardening system -- a combined initiative between Solar CITIES and the AKTC environmental NGO that provides rooftop stored hot and cold water for domestic household use and urban agriculture at the same time.)
The discussion among local stakeholders revealed that most people cannot invest time or resources heavily in "pie in the sky ideas" that, however well intentioned, don't fit into the daily struggle to make ends meet in a community that must live with uncertainty every day. New or unfamiliar technologies must be streamlined and integrated into the daily practices of the stakeholders and meet several needs simultaneously without adding incommensurate extra burdens.
What was concluded in the multi-stake-holder environmental meeting was that if we were to COMBINE roof top gardening with roof top water storage and "simultaneous-solar-heating-and-sun-shelter" installations (provides cold and hot water all year round; keeps the roof cooler in the summer) and see it all as part of a gradual move toward energy/food/economic independence (combined possibly with roof top biogas production following the Indian ARTI model for utilizing and creating compost with urban waste , with ground-source heat pump and small scale wind energy and photovoltaic technologies for disaster preparedness and insurance against rising energy and food costs), we could generate more ideas and greater acceptance and stakeholder commitment.
Thus the Solar C3ITIES project at the AKTC is not intended specifically to introduce rooftop gardens or solar energy per se. Instead, the project strives to help a community get on its feet and get sustainable "by all means necessary".
Right now, according to the preliminary survey results on hot water demand, because of what are still relatively high investment costs, very few people living in urban poverty in Cairo are going to demand "solar hot water" systems per se (the high price of copper makes a family size system still cost nearly LE2500). People in the community are adept at heating their water using the stove when necessary and have adjusted to the inconvenience and are unwilling to pay more than they are paying now (their own labor is in greater supply than their income, and is discounted on a daily level). While they almost all recognize the long term advantages of SHW, even with the cost lowering innovations pioneered in the project area, most people cannot justify the expense given that gas and electricity are still heavily subsidized in Cairo. So an attempt to introduce unsubsidized solar energy to the slums WILL fail if that is what we say we want to deliver.

But if we are delivering a concept of integrated industrial ecology -- if we are introducing flexible, modular, changeable solution sets to a multiplicity of local concerns -- then we can build confidence in and familiarity with each new innovative idea, and impart this heuristic -- already available at the local level -- to the task of conceiving environmental technology endeavors that can benefit everyone in both the local and the global environment.
Pictures: Using models of the action area created by Nivine Akl, Mohamed Ebaid, Heba Foda, Kareem Ibrahim, Mahmoud Qotb, Mohamed Said, Nadine Samir, Roberto Simeone, and Ibrahim Zakareya, Taha Rassam Culhane mocks up the solar roofs project in Google Earth to share the vision with the world community in 3D.

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