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Human-Centered Design for Off-Grid Solar Entrepreneurs

10 December 2015

Two years ago while I was surveying solar lantern users in the Philippines, I learned that one user had set her solar panel on fire. When asked about the immolation, she said she thought that was how they were charged. This woman had lived her entire life in a village without electricity, had never used a solar panel, and fire was her only reliable source of energy. Though surprising, her actions were completely logical, and we had failed to anticipate this challenge and adequately explain that solar panels should not be incinerated.

Worldwide, 1.5 billion people live in unelectrified communities. These individuals often spend more than 10% of their income on kerosene for lighting. The dim and smoky light of a kerosene lamp is insufficient for work and study, yet poses a constant risk of burns, house fires, and respiratory illness. Individuals frequently walk many miles to charge cell phones, meanwhile more sophisticated technologies such as medical and educational equipment are altogether unattainable.

The term “off-grid solar” refers to solar systems which are not connected to the formal electricity grid. Off-grid solar systems are an effective tool in fighting energy poverty, as they work in nearly any environment, range from small individual systems to large power plants, can be fully self-contained, and produce nothing but clean, carbon-free energy.

Off-grid solar products for rural communities can be divided into three categories: solar lanterns, solar home systems, and microgrids. Solar lanterns are rechargeable flashlights powered by a small built-in or separate panel. They provide the most basic energy services: lighting and charging cell phones. Solar home systems use larger solar panels (generally between 10–150 watts) to power several lights and to charge cell phones and small appliances such as fans, radios, and televisions. Microgrids (also called minigrids or picogrids) are centralized solar installations connected to multiple users, but still isolated from the formal electric grid, and range between several hundred watts to tens of kilowatts. Because multiple users are connected to microgrids, they can provide power commensurate with solar home systems, or even more energy for large appliances or community infrastructure.

Each of these off-grid solar products can be considered as a rung on an “energy ladder”. Some customers may not be able to afford a solar home system or microgrid connection, so they start with a solar lantern. Through savings on kerosene and increased productivity, even a small solar lantern can initiate a user’s climb up the energy ladder.

So where does human-centered design fit in? Every market, community, and individual has a unique set of needs, constraints, and opportunities. Some communities use only kerosene for light at night, while others may use candles or disposable batteries. One community may be afraid of solar technology because they do not understand it, while another may embrace it. A technology or approach which thrives in one place may fail spectacularly in another; the outcome is nearly impossible to predict. Peculiar and unpredictable events like cremated solar panels are inevitable. We cannot always anticipate nor prevent them, but we can take an approach that mitigates their impact and allows us to adapt quickly. Human-centered design focuses on avoiding assumptions, working closely with end-users to understand their needs, and repeatedly testing and iterating one’s solution.

human-centered design

Human-centered design focuses on working with end-users to address individual needs (photo credit: SunSaluter).

The SunSaluter is an exemplar of human-centered design. It is a low-cost solar tracker built from common materials that uses only water to rotate. The SunSaluter design has been iterated over 60 times in response to user feedback and unexpected findings. Recently, we had to brainstorm ways to prevent mischievous monkeys from dissembling our systems (after one did just that in India). One never knows what to expect. In far-flung Filipino villages, I was stunned to see televisions, refrigerators, and washing machines that were useless to their owners. As it turns out, wealthier family members living abroad frequently send these lavish gifts to their relatives in the countryside without realizing they are unusable. This unexpected circumstance presents an opportunity for the adaptable human-centered solar entrepreneur, who can design a system to power these existing assets and provide immense utility for the community.

There is a veritable cornucopia of off-grid solar products on the market, and not all are created equal. Choosing the right products is critical: poorly made solar lanterns can turn an entire community against using solar ever again. The stakes are high: impoverished families cannot afford to invest their precious savings in poorly made products which fail. High-quality products which serve the user well are worth the higher cost, and therefore access to financing is critical. Yet, even the best products sometimes fail, and it is the relationships with users built upon reliable after-sales service systems that ensure a timely resolution and lasting impact. Considering human behavior and creating community-focused programs is paramount.

Human-centered design even applies to an organization’s business model. Depending on one’s context and goals, a non-profit, for-profit, or hybrid model can make the most sense. Non-profits which donate or discount the cost of solar products are able to optimize affordability for users, but oftentimes beneficiaries lack a sense of ownership, leading to poor maintenance and ultimately to failure of the program. Many practitioners believe that a for-profit model is necessary to ensure sustainable and scalable impact. When users are paying customers, they have a deep investment in the success of the program, and may be more likely to see a positive impact. Hybrid models are increasingly common as organizations seek to maximize both social impact and financial sustainability. No option is inherently superior.

There is no panacea for energy poverty. The world is too wonderfully diverse for a one-size-fits-all solution. Yet, when organizations follow the principles of human-centered design and listen to users and accommodate their needs, there is always a way to create positive, sustainable, and locally appropriate social impact.

Jake Schual-Berke is passionate about creating sustainable social impact. He believes in human-centered design—not only with regards to technology, but to the programs and systems that surround it as well. He is currently the Field Operations Manager for Cookstoves at Nexleaf Analytics. Previously he was the Chief Operating Officer at SunSaluter, and the Program Director at Stiftung Solarenergie Philippines before that. He holds a BA in Chemistry from Pomona College.

Cover image by SunSaluter.