Solar Powered Tablets should not Be Limited to Children in Ethiopia: Lessons From Sandy

All last week there were numerous frantic New Yorkers looking desperately for places to plug-in. Without electricity this ultra connected island was stranded by the storm both physically and electronically. People stood in groups throughout the darkened city listening to battery-powered boom boxes for news. In polling places on Long Island generators still stood idle even on November 06, 2012, election day, for lack of petrol. The oddest part about all of these pictures is that there is solar technology- cheap technology- that can be used to power tablets and laptop computers under the most difficult situations. The question is why aren’t we all using this technology?

One Laptop Per Child (OLPC), backed by the brightest minds at MIT, has developed both a cheap durable, water-proof, solar-powered laptop and a solar charging system that can be used with Motorola Xoom tablets. OLPC is currently conducting an educational study in villages in Ethiopia with these solar powered wonder boxes. One Laptop Per Family has distributed Motorola Xoom tablets to two remote villages complete with solar-powered charging systems to research the efficacy of self-directed computer learning. Each week an OLPC researcher swaps out the memory cards to review the students progress. Progress to date has been amazing- completely illiterate children have taught themselves the alphabet from the computers and have even figured out how to reconfigure the machines to meet their needs. Nicholas Negroponte, OLPC’s founder reviewed the earliest data from this study at MIT’s recent EmTech conference.

The same tablets and computers that offer hope to undeveloped countries could prove to be valuable sources of energy for the rest of us during emergency situations like hurricane Sandy. Known as microgrids, this new generation of solar-chargers is far more flexible than the previous generation of portable solar. Moreover, microgrids are currently operating on a regular basis in this country. For example, a hybrid microgrid keeps a 4,000-inmate jail in Santa Rosa powered up and safe all the time.

Hybrid microgrids that use both traditional fuel sources and new solar technology offer even greater promise. A small village named Tanjung Batu Laut in Malaysian Borneo is currently the poster child for MIT’s new hybrid microgrids. Using a combination of solar panels and diesel generators a village of 200 people has electricity 24/7. The introduction of electricity holds great promise for moving much of the earth’s poorest populations out of the dark. While there is no question that this is a noble endeavor it does raise the question as to why microgrids aren’t also protecting our own cities in the event of catastrophic emergency situations like hurricane Sandy.

Solar Microgrids Could Save Millions when Storms Hit

Solar-powered chargers and microgrids distributed throughout the city and boroughs of New York City would provide the people of the city with access to connectivity and electricity even during crisis situations like hurricane Sandy. In a city where millions are lost every day the city is dark a little solar investment would make a great deal of financial sense. Emergency supplies such as food and water were moved into place in preparation for the storm. Why weren’t microgrid chargers, hybrid microgrids and stockpiles of motorola Xooms or OLPC type laptops also on the ready? Why are thousands of US citizens still without power and still without access to emergency charging facilities?

In a world where climate scientists are projecting a ever greater increase in severe storms it seems that the scope of disaster preparedness needs to be completely rethought. Renewable, flexible, portable power sources are extremely important for communication and safety. Moreover, just having access to a cell phone or social media would bring comfort to thousands of people who are living through these disasters.

Article by Lisa Pluth, PhD.

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