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Africa solar electricity project takes shape at Eckerd College

ST. PETERSBURG — The promise of cheap power for health clinics in rural Africa sits at the edge of a Florida bay.

Lesotho's ruddy mountainscape has just this in common with a strip of grass at Eckerd College: sunlight.

That, and one volunteer-minded grandmother, are why experts from four states showed up this month to start work on an experimental low-tech power plant.

Mirrored troughs will concentrate the sun's heat on a fluid, creating motion — and electricity. The test site for MIT engineers will help them refine an award-winning solar design already powering one Lesotho clinic.

Why Africa? Why Eckerd?

The answer is Matt Orosz, a 32-year-old doctoral student at MIT. He's an engineer now, but was once a liberal arts student at Dartmouth College. Semesters in Budapest, then Zimbabwe, inspired time in the Peace Corps. He worked in Lesotho, a country surrounded by South Africa where fewer than one in six people have access to electricity.

He burned his hand on a bread oven.

The oven used sunlight, with bread sitting in a shiny parabola that concentrated heat. If the Basotho could bake their bread, Orosz thought, he could create power.

A solar energy system that didn't rely on glass-covered photovoltaic panels could solve a handful of problems. It could replace polluting diesel generators. It could create hot water that would free women from scavenging in deforested areas for fuel. It would limit theft and damage to delicate shipped-in components.

He needed to become an engineer. He went to MIT and earned two master's degrees. He returned with a team to Lesotho in 2005 to build prototypes of a solar thermal power system that he designed.

The system was already grabbing attention.

"Nobody designs a miniature power plant," he says.

• • •

Orosz won the MIT Ideas Competition in 2004 and 2005. He was a World Bank Development Marketplace finalist. He picked up a couple of fellowships.

He started a nonprofit, STG International. His work has been funded by the World Bank, National Collegiate Inventors and Innovators Alliance, Ignite Clean Energy, the MIT Energy Initiative and the EPA's P3 program.

Here's what was different about his system:

First, size. U.S. solar thermal plants can sprawl across hundreds of acres to power thousands of homes. He wanted a miniaturized system, for a single school or clinic, that would provide 3 to 5 kilowatts of power plus hot water.

Second, cost. That miniaturization couldn't result in expensive, rare parts. He needed to be able to use parts that were already relatively common to make his system competitive for off-grid Africans who pay 30 to 50 cents a kilowatt hour for diesel or photovoltaic power.

Third, simplicity. The best system — one that would take root and spread — would be one the Basotho could build and maintain themselves far from the national power grid. It would provide not just power, but local business.

"If you know how to turn a wrench, you're already part of the way there," said Amy Mueller, 30, another MIT doctoral student who co-directs nonprofit STG.

The earliest prototypes reused car and air conditioning parts: car power steering pumps and automotive AC compressors. Now the "junkyard solar" label is one Orosz and his team are working to shake.

"We don't use any car parts anymore, or even any used parts," Orosz says.

• • •

Take the Eckerd test site. Donated solar collectors came from a Hawaiian company, Sopogy. They're anchored in damp sand by German technology — giant Krinner Ground Screws instead of concrete — from a Canadian company that sent an installer from California. A St. Petersburg contractor that's a member of the Florida Green Builders Coalition, Water Oak Development Group, oversaw assembly and installation.

"Every time Matt takes on a new project, he looks for ways to improve the previous one," said Kent Rodahaver, Water Oak's director.

It was the search for a better spot for research and development that brought Orosz to Eckerd. Massachusetts was convenient, but only for the six weeks a year with enough sun. Lesotho, a 35-hour trip, was just too far. Even the Southwest, with plentiful light and space, was a longer plane flight than Florida. And then there was Orosz's grandma.

Kay Gendreau, 75, has volunteered at Eckerd for nearly a decade. She loves the campus, the people. She lives across the street. Orosz grew up working in her Massachusetts restaurant. As he searched for a Florida site, Eckerd made sense.

When he stood up March 12 for the unveiling of the site's first phase, he thanked her. Gendreau beamed.

"He's just a very unassuming kid. We never knew what he was up to until we saw it in a pamphlet somewhere," she said.

For Eckerd, its yearlong Africa Initiative made the partnership ideal.

"We're happy to help MIT out," president Donald Eastman joked at the unveiling.

The test site won't generate electricity until 2011. That's mostly because Orosz has something he has got to do before he finishes it.

One of those fellowships he picked up was a 2009 Fulbright. He had to delay the trip — it was a busy year — but he leaves for southern Africa on March 30. He'll spend 10 months evaluating — what else? — technical, economic and social applicability of solar technology for use in low-income housing.

Florida sun will help light the way.

Becky Bowers can be reached at bbowers@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8859. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/bbowerstimes.

Africa solar electricity project takes shape at Eckerd College 03/23/10 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 23, 2010 3:59pm]
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