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!"

Friday, April 11, 2008

Interim report letter to our funders at US AID

Re: Solar CITIES small infrastructure grant Interim Progress Report

To whom it may concern:

Thanks so much for believing in us at Roh El Shabab and funding the first half of our initiative. As the initial co-founder and instructor in the Roh El Shabab Solar CITIES initiative, I am writing this interim report to supplement what our local team leaders are submitting to you.

The US AID funded Solar CITIES small infrastructure project has so far fulfilled its mandate by building 15 of the 30 budgeted flate plate solar hot water systems it was contracted to create in Darb El Ahmar and Manshiyat Nasser. In addition, two professional vaccum tube systems have been purchased and installed, one in each area, as part of our mandate to build capacity and engage in up-to-date training of local labor.

(picture shows some of the solar roofs we built with the US AID grant that are operating in Manshiyat Nasser and Darb El Ahmar)

Eight systems are currently in place and operational in the Zabaleen community, 5 systems are currently in place and operational and 2 additional systems are scheduled to have their plumbing finished this week. These systems all bear the US AID decal and are ready for inspection.

These past weeks, apart from leading more training with our Coptic and Muslim integrated industrial ecology team, building and installing residential SHW in the slums, we built and installed a 200 liter two panel system on a commercial building above the 300 year old Abu Hureyba Public Bath (once featured in National Geographic and Aramco magazines) and then built another similar sized system for the bath itself which will be installed this week. This is part of a broader vision for getting the community to take ownership over climate change mitigating technologies, described below.

These are, of course, baby steps, given the growing threats of climate change impact on the Egyptian economy and rising food, oil, gas and electric prices, but we have found that our stakeholders here in Egypt, particularly the garbage recycling Zabaleen who make up our Spirit of Youth NGO, and the local environmental NGOS we work with in the Aga Khan project area of Darb El Ahmar, are very enthusiastic about the Solar Hot Water initiative and can easily replicate and expand the program if we can get more grants.

Right now we are integrating our solar hot water systems with the AKTC rooftop garden program and are endeavoring to secure funding to create the first solar powered public bath in Egypt because we believe that these are the fastest ways to create local buy-in from the urban poor. The idea is to use self-provisioning potential amidst rising food prices and to use the revival of a decaying cultural icon like the venerated public bath to inspire confidence for renewable energy technologies in these ancient communities. Through these projects we know that we can get stakeholder buy-in so that we can submit for further participatory community development grants next funding cycle to expand the reach of the rooftop gardening/hot-and-cold water provisiong program and install a 2000 liter system that can help both restore the legendary public bath tradition (making it immune to the fuel cost increases that led to its decay and shutdown) and act as a focal point for invigorating a "million solar roofs campaign" of, for and by the disenfranchised urban poor.

The purchase of the two large professional imported evacuated tube systems from Alaa Watidy at RSD Technologies Egypt, is also part of this "pride building initiative" that can help "change hearts and minds." We placed the advanced technology systems in places easily visible from public areas (the cafeteria of the Samaan Monastery and a building next to the Darb Shuglan mosque, visible for Al Azhar park). By providing the latest technology in the area, working with Engineer Watidy's forward thinking Egyptian company, we ensure that the work force of the future in Egypt will not lag behind as technology shifts occur. As we build our own flat panel systems we thus always keep an eye on the future.

(picture shows Hana and Musa on the roof of the St. Samaan Monastery cafeteria after assembling a professional vacuum tube hot water system for washing dishes and glassware)

We feel what is really going to drive this evolution is having locally built installations whose daily use and innovation will create discussion foci connected to overall development that links to cultural pride and positive identity reinforcement.

Engineer Watidy and his company believe that we can bring the cost of professional solar hot water systems down by having many components (the specialized tanks and stands for example) manufactured locally. The craftspeople we are training in our Solar CITIES program are well suited for such an initiative due to their experience engineering systems from scratch. All they need is more infrastructure and green investment capital.

As you know, the craftspeople and laborers of poor and traditional communities pride themselves in what they can make by their own hands, and on their problem-solving acumen,and very much need a sense of ownership over and involvement in their future and over the solution sets used to address their development challenges.

(picture shows Taha and Musa holding recycled 1cm plastic panels made by Prima Plast from trash bags and other low-value plastic residuals supplied by the Zabaleen and now returned to the area as a value added product used to create the solar collector boxes for our Zabaleen community systems. Two years ago Solar CITIES advisor and AUC mentor professor of Environmental Science Dr. Jeff Miller inspired the idea, which recently became a reality after much experimentation. )

Respecting all of this, Dr. Laila Iskander and Roh El Shabab director Ezzat Naem Guindy have guarenteed that the youth of the community play a vital and increasing role in capacity building and system building and innovation in both of our target areas so that the true "spirit of youth" and its creativity is reflected in our training. We have devoted a small part of our budget to locally innovating and installing two completely new systems -- one, suggested by Roh El Shabab school teachers, that uses pressed recycled plastic bags to make the collector boxes and another,invented by Hana Fathy's brother Ayman when he saw the imported vacuum tube systems, that uses recycled plastic fluorescent tubes instead of copper pipe, radically decreasing costs (since copper makes up 40 % of our system costs.

We have also demonstrated the potential for systems built out of PVC pipes, steel pipes and discarded water bottles. The potential for many sorts of solutions to the problem of heating water without relying on greenhouse gases has been shown. The mainstay of our program, of course, is training people to build systems identical to but cost competitive with or cheaper than the flat panel systems currently made in Egyptian factories, and in that we have been quite successful. The 15 systems we have built from scratch and completed are functionally equivalent to those manufactured in factories.

What is amazing and gratifying to us is how our implementation of a US AID small infrastructure seed grant of only 25,000 (only half spent so far) has led to such enormous confidence, inventiveness and capacity building and rapid results in our two distinct target communities, Muslim and Christian.

This is mostly, I think, because the recipient NGO, Roh El Shabab, has been managing the funds in a completely transparent way, are forthright in our philosophy and social agenda of "connecting community catalysts" as the top priority of our initiative and are including broader environmental and conflict resolution education in the technical training we do so that everybody sees that this is not just a renewable energy and energy conservation project, but part of a broader community revitalization agenda.

We ask the local women, whom our surveys indicate are responsible for managing household energy consumption, what their ideas for improving service delivery are, and have even put wrenches into their hands and get them on the "solar roofs" to help the men make construction decisions. Thus, rather than trying to merely get the technology built, we focus on building good community relations and improving equity and democratic decision making.

Now, after nearly two years of struggling to find a flow, and six months after receiving the first half of our grant, the investment is paying off.

We are also finding that when 100% of the money goes directly into the local economy and the "technical experts" allow (and budget for) "learning by doing" with an allowance that actually encourages local trainees to develop their skills through trial and error and to "make mistakes and learn from what breaks", we get much better long term results.

We've learned that most of the long term problems with renewable energy systems in Egypt come from a disconnect between the mental models the local journeymen and women haveabout the way the world works and the actual, but often hidden, physical, chemical and biological properties of nature.

Public Science education in Egypt is poor and involves so little actual empirical testing that it is often impossible for even the best local plumber or construction worker to understand how air and water and light, heat and pressure are interacting in renewable energy systems. Cairo's laborers generally replicate only what they have seen before, without having the sufficient theoretical understanding to adapt to changing circumstances. With unfamiliar energy and convservation technologies that have no "one size fits all" advantage, this creates conditions for future failure.

To effectively train community members so that they will maintain and sustain our energyconservation initiatives we have had to build into our program the encouragement to "try your model of reality out, and if it fails, let it fail, then learn from the failure".

In a patron-client state like Egypt that has bred deep risk-aversion among its people, and in a community that doesn’t have the financial resources to recover from mistakes easily, this has been a major challenge. The hardest thing for outside technical experts is to watch people doing things their way, but doing them wrong, and bite our lips and say, “okay, try your idea, we will see what the results are, and adjust accordingly”. As a director and lead manager, I have had to use my judgment as to when the outcomes justify the risks, and when to intervene; the end results however are very encouraging and fortunately my local protégé, Hana Fathy, who has taken over from me, has learned well and is using the same good judgment as he trains new members of the team.

A little apparently goes a long way when subtended by principles of fairness, openness and a willingness to experiment and honor the contributions and creativity of each stakeholder.

I've thus returned to Germany from Egypt in high spirits, very confident in the sustainability of our Solar CITIES program and in the capabilities of our program directors at Roh El Shabab.

We believe that in these important and delicate times, when energy prices are skyrocketing, global warming is wreaking havoc on ecological and social systems and the Mubarak Administration and other Arab governments are using these realities as political excuses to green light the construction of nuclear reactors in Egypt and the Middle East (possibly a very dangerous proposition if we don't improve the general quality of education!) on-the-ground energy conservation and renewable energy training initiatives like ours are good and important investments.

We have learned from executives in the Oil Industry in Egypt that they too are looking for people and institutions with effective energy conservation programs that can help in the Middle East. Unfortunately they find a dearth of qualified personnel or find ideological or methodological barriers that would hinder cooperation. Our common enemy is the complex scourge of poverty, ignorance, terrorism and environmental degradation that threaten us all; energy companies whether they are involved with the exploitation of hydrocarbons or sunshine, are precisely the service and solution industries we in civil society and in the community planning sector must be working especially closely with and the Solar CITIES program of the Roh El Shabab NGO is ready to build those bridges.

According to many policy analysts, Egypt has a strong need to export gas and oil at fair market price, and to find ways to use petroleum products most effectively. Energy subsidies, on the order of 50 billion LE per year, are crippling the Egyptian economy and reducing its competitiveness. What we are trying to do in Solar CITIES is to reduce Cairo’s domestic demand for hydrocarbon based fuels (including electricity) so that subsidies can be removed or shifted without fomenting severe social unrest.

If we were to succeed in reducing urban energy consumption through our renewable energy initiative Egypt could export gas for much needed hard currency. Meanwhile rioting and protests and civil unrest could be avoided, not only because the impact of rising energy prices would be offset by a lesser need for increasingly expensive hydrocarbons, but because our solar roofs, small wind and urban biogas projects would create the jobs and training opportunities the poor are demanding. So it is a win-win-win for all.”

Our data on household demand for hot water among the urban poor gives us some ideas of what consumption patterns and needs are in a sector that makes up for its small per capita ecological and economic footprint through sheer population size.

Our passion for solving problems in innovative and creative ways, “integrating technologies for industrial ecology systems”, our dedication to the social intelligence of team playing and our commitment to continuing and sustaining the progress we have made should give you every confidence not only to continue funding us on our current grant, but to help us obtain additional funds through which we might expand into other much needed areas such as domestic biogas, waste management, water reclamation, and renewable electricity generation.

Thank you for believing in us and making this program possible.

Sincerely yours,

T.H. Culhane Solar CITIES program founder and team instructor Roh El Shabab (Spirit of Youth) NGO


Bonifer said...

I think caulking guns make perfectly good weapons.

Stop or I'll caulk!

Don't caulk till you see the whites of their eyes!

T.H. Culhane said...

You are so right Mike! I think caulk guns, reconceived, could be changers... now that you point it out!
Yes, it's true, "as we move from the rigid, hierarchical plumbing structures of the Industrial Age to the fluid, non-linear caulking of the Post-plastics World, Caulk Guns have never been more important or essential. Whenever teamwork, creativity, flexibility and problem-solving skills are necessary for success, these devices step up."
Great to hear from you! Your web site looks great!
Come visit us in Germany or Cairo some time!
Cheers, T.H.