Shaking off the energy crisis: how far can kinetic deliver on its promises?

Shaking off the energy crisis: how far can kinetic deliver on its promises?

When the sun sets in Kenya, tens of millions of people set about the daily challenge of lighting their homes. Some 80% of the population lives off-grid, according to the World Bank, while 550m people across Africa lack access to electricity. Despite the rise of solar technology, burning kerosene oil is still commonplace for many Kenyans, a practice that weighs heavily on the household purse and exposes families to noxious fumes.

Sudha Kheterpal, the former percussionist with the band Faithless, has developed a prototype percussion shaker to help children in rural Kenya gain access to a few hours’ extra light and learn about renewable energy. Shaken for 12 minutes, it can yield an hour of power.

Children trialling the shaker in western Kenya have responded positively to trials, according to Kheterpal, learning about it in school and using theenergy at home to create light for reading, school work and charging mobile phones. A crowdfunding campaign is now in place to raise £50,000 to reach an initial 1,000 children. Central to this will be optimising the shaker design and materials, and seeking manufacturing and distribution partners.

“I hope to encourage maximum take-up by developing an assembly kit, so children can build their own shaker,” explains Kheterpal. “In the long-term, I’d like to reach children learning about kinetic and renewable energy in Africa, India and Brazil.”

While Kheterpal and her team seek to bring a creative, educational solution to a very real development need, they will face some steep challenges to bring the initiative to scale. Gaining sufficient investment will be fundamental, as will defining exactly how the project could be sustained for the long-term in a way that responds effectively to the needs of users and protects the environment. Affordability will be critical, and moreover, will people embrace the idea of producing energy themselves?

“The shaker has promise for low energy applications such as low power lights and limited charging of mobile phones,” says Ioannis Kymissis, associate professor of electrical engineering at New York’s Columbia University.

Anne Wheldon, renewable energy expert and Ashden adviser says: “When tackling a pressing development need, it’s vital to engage with people on the ground to understand what they want.

“Shaking a musical instrument may be fun and engaging initially, but its success will ultimately be determined by whether children want to use it for the long-term. It must also be simple and cost-effective to distribute and repair, and commercially viable for the manufacturer to offer warranties.”

She said investors and grant-makers would look at how a kinetic energy harvesting solution performs compared to an equivalent competitor solution. “With solar innovations now starting to reach scale, any initiative seeking to harness energy from human activity would need to perform at least as well in order to attract serious funding.”

The shaker is one of many kinetic products emerging to solve the energy crisis. A product design firm Unchartered Play raised $92,200 (£54,328) in March 2014 to manufacture and distribute the Soccet, a football that converts kinetic energy into electricity via a pendulum-like mechanism, powering an LED light for three hours after 30 minutes of play.

“Various kinetic energy projects have been introduced in Africa over time, but none of these has taken off at scale,” says Brenda Martin of the World Future Council. “Aspiration for energy security in Africa generally continues to be for a conventional, ‘flick of a switch’ supply. However, if small-scale innovations boost the local economy, use good quality components, change children’s quality of life and are affordable, they can play a role in promoting energy access.”

The Kenyan schools visited by Kheterpal taught pupils about renewable energy but lacked a way to demonstrate it. Providing pupils with shaker assembly kits could help them to put theory into practice, their teachers concurred. And this could also inspire confidence in the benefits of other renewable technologies, according to Wim Jonker Klunne, senior renewable energy researcher at the CSIR.

“The percussion shaker may prove of more interest from an educational perspective,” says Klunne. “It’s great to help children understand how energy is generated, and show them that small amounts of energy can bring big improvements to life.”

As work continues to deliver a permanent, affordable electricity supply for all in Africa, kinetic energy solutions can provide a sustainable alternative to kerosene lamps for low energy needs. A few extra hours of LED-powered light saves people money, reduces their exposure to smoky fumes and provides valuable time to work, study or innovate. Above all, innovations like the percussion shaker can be used to bring renewable energy to life for the next generation of Africans, shining a light on the possibilities for a clean, secure energy future.

This article was originally published on the Guardian website.