Renewable Discards

Renewable Discards

kenyastraussrenewableSo simple it’s embarrassing: why didn’t Horton’s America think of this: make a solar panel and a roof one and the same. A wholly Kenyan company now does.

Uninhibited by aging conglomerates Africa is streaking past the western world: iPhone clones at $100 each, bricks manufactured at a thousandth of the cost in Tennessee, and now self-contained energy homes. And it’s not just because labor is less expensive. It’s because imaginations aren’t tethered to the Big and Mighty.

BIPV: Building Integrated Photovoltaics. Tesla plans a car with a BIPV roof. But it won’t be launched here, god no. Think of what Nevada gas station owners might say. It will debut in Japan.

BIPV: Thought up by Americans, first actually implemented by the Brits it was dropped in America the moment big energy companies got wind of it.

President Obama to the rescue. He refunded the almost moribund National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) and it really liked BIPVs. So grants started to become available. That takes time.

During this time two engineering students at the University of Nairobi, Tony Nyagah and Charity Wanjiku, collaborated on their masters thesis: how BIPV could help Kenyans.

Like cell phones, good modern ideas have blossomed in the developing world uninhibited by the old businesses they threaten. I’ve often written how African apps for crowd sourcing and funding, police monitoring, riot management, money transfer, agricultural development and even weather are much better than those apps developed in the West.

Because they weren’t suppressed by institutionalized capitalism. Our former businesses have grown so big and powerful and are by their being based on old ideas. They suppress new ideas.

So Nyagah and Wanjiku graduated and so what an enormous opportunity Kenya provided their ideas. The old electricity grid never worked well in any of the colonial countries, because it was never built to standards in the beginning.

So rather than grow the grid it had to be constantly repaired. This was also true of the source of electricity: dams and coal-fed power plants that were never properly built.

Constantly repairing something that isn’t built to standards is expensive and ineffective. Start anew.

Nyagah and Wanjiku had gone a long way towards perfecting a roofing material that integrated solar voltaic cells. The bugaboo with most solar is its storage: the battery. So out came a new idea: an air compressed battery powered by solar with a bi-product of clean water.

Obama’s dreams for a surge in renewable energy have had some successes: wind farms in particular. But solar faltered, probably because Chinese manufacturing cost so much less.

So the NREL’s BIPV grants weren’t getting a lot of attention… except by Nyagah and Wanjiku who landed a big one through the American African Development Bank, from NREL.

Starting with $2 million, Strauss Energy is now raising hundreds of millions. Thousands of homes are being built by them, all of them with BIPV roofs and air compressor batteries. They estimate the cost of both to be about $5,000 more than a home without these energy renewables built into it.

The idea is so popular in Kenya that communities are now funding schools built by Strauss Energy.

The most rural of schools now offers reliably powered computers, classrooms and laboratories.

America’s got good ideas. I’m quite happy that Kenya’s Strauss Energy knows how to use them.