Most of the results VIP has collected
so far have been anecdotal, but insightful
nevertheless. One of the issues the team is
tackling, for example, is installing automatic
feed controls and battery charging to the
machines. Other feedback has revealed that
some aspects of the machines work better
than initially estimated.
“A lot of people thought the fact that it was
a manual machine was going to be a problem,”
offers Felicity Lodge, VIP’s CEO. “In fact, people
were thrilled that it was manual because they
don't have to worry about replacing parts they
don't have access to or can’t repair. They were
happy that the unit can be taken apart and put
together under an hour with two wrenches.”
She adds that technologies for low-
resource markets like the ones they serve in
Africa can sometimes be overly complicated.
“Once they break, they’re broken. That wasn't
the design here. It was intentional to make
the VIP repairable and easily maintained.”
One of the most surprising pieces of
feedback concerns the machine’s ability to
minimize wood as a daily fuel source. Both
Bielenberg and Lodge believed farmers and
villagers would be most excited about the cost
savings of diesel. “But it turns out that vastly
reducing the consumption of wood is equally if
not more important to them,” Lodge says.
This is an important sign for the future of
the technology as an effective and sustainable source of energy. It is not hard to
imagine how a robust, biomass-fueled power
producer could lead to destructive environmental practices, like deforestation, to keep
communities heated and lit and to keep pace
with economic growth. But to the contrary,
Bielenberg believes that the local presence of
a VIP could actually encourage reforestation
by motivating farmers to sustainably plant
trees for fuel use, rather than merely harvest
wood for subsistence, he says.
The VIP team has not yet published
quantitative data on how many k W-hours of
electricity the machines can produce per kilogram of biomass material, but they are analyzing these figures for multiple fuel sources.
Preliminary tests revealed that when the
VIP’s boiler pressure is running between 250
to 300 psi, it requires 25 to 30 kg of air-dried
wood per hour to produce 7 k W of power.
“The next generation VIP”—which
launched in December 2015—“was designed
to operate at up to 400 psi. We have
observed a great increase in power and efficiency with increased pressure and expect
the new units to produce 10 k W with the
same fuel consumption,” Bielenberg says.
With investment funding from early-stage
venture support firm Factor(E) Ventures, the
new units—dubbed the V- 10—include several
improvements, such as a new boiler designed
to ASME code, welded pipe connections and
stronger internal engine parts to accommodate the increased pressure and power.
Market trials of the new units will begin in
2016 in Kenya and Ghana.
CLOSING THE LOOP
In the Tanzanian village where the VIP unit is
being used to power a microgrid, the process
of getting the grid up and running taught
the VIP team a great deal about the potential and limitations of their invention. In the
village, they found a community that was
waiting for the government to connect them
to the national electricity grid, even though
Tanzania’s grid only reaches 14 percent of its
nearly 50 million citizens. (Most of its connected users are in cities.) Because of this,
villagers’ willingness to pay for power was
limited, even though the government’s pace
of connectivity has been slow.
Those who recognized that the grid was
unlikely to reach them anytime soon were
more willing to pay for power, provided they
could reduce costs by running the source for
longer periods of time to support productive
The VIP team thus learned that to make
a microgrid system work, those applications
have to be available from day one, and there
must also be a clear process in place for billing
households for the power they use. The costs
and planning required to get the technology
working to this level can be more than some
of VIP’s intended customers can manage.
Bielenberg and Lodge recognize that the
upfront cost of a VIP unit, whether for a microgrid
or any other application, poses a challenge to its
scalability. “One big problem for a lot of farmers
is financing, because they cannot easily access
financing from banks or other traditional provid-
ers,” Lodge says. “We're looking at different
financing models and how we can address that.”
One solution is to help communities develop
financing models that are similar to an energy
service company or a cooperative, where mem-
bers would pull together to buy a machine.
They also hope to leverage successful community members’ interest in helping their home
villages gain access to better resources.
“In Africa, people who have gone off and
done well are traditionally responsible for helping their villages and families,” Lodge says.
Bielenberg adds: “I see them as people
who ultimately should be responsible for
their country's economic development. They
have the resources to make that happen, but
they haven't been fully engaged because the
technology [needed for economic develop-
ment] has not been available.”
Bielenberg has seen first-hand how
impactful engagement can be. Last April on
a trip to Benin, Bielenberg was speaking with
his Malian driver about his work on the VIP.
The driver offered to assist with installing
the three units in Sakete. He arrived to help
unload the machine and manage everyone
installing it; he also learned how to service and
run it. He told Bielenberg that once he retired,
he wanted to have a VIP in his village in Mali.
Bielenberg reflects, “He also said: ‘This
is something you will never fully know the
fruits of because the fruits will continue to
accumulate long after you're gone.’” •
“People were happy the
unit can be taken apart
and put together in an
hour with two wrenches.”