Miriam Tuerk is co-founder & CEO, Clear Blue Technologies Inc., a Canadian-based company that develops solar and wind hybrid controller and cloud software for outdoor lighting, security, telecom, and environmental companies. Its solar and wind hybrid controller solution integrates into various products, such as off-grid streetlights and other outdoor lighting, security systems. She was in Lagos for a two-day business trip last week and spoke to STEVE OMANUFEME, on off-grid renewable energy, its benefits and its partnership with a Nigerian firm, Raeanna, to provide off-grid solutions across Nigeria. Excerpts
What are off-grid renewable energy systems and why do they matter in our world of today?
Most of the solar and wind technologies, which are the first wave, have really been focused on putting that electricity into the electricity grids, but the electricity grid cabling and distribution is more than 50 percent of the cost of energy.
So, let’s look at it this way: I was driving in from the airport (Murtala Mohammed International Airport, Lagos) last night and all the lights at the beginning of the airport were not working. But when I got into the city, they were, and I noticed that all that cabling, from pole to pole, is the expensive part of electricity and power; that is what cost a lot of money.
In the beginning, solar was great instead of coal or gas or other forms of energy to put centrally. However, if you can get rid of all that cabling and just have the power right where you are going to use it, it would have a big impact. The best example to look at is your phone; 20 years ago, every phone was a landline and think of how many Nigerians did not have phones and had to wait for the landlines.
It was too expensive, and you had to wait for it to go down every street, but today because we no longer have the landlines, more people can have phones in more areas and use it when they want to. And now, there is a big push to have Internet and cellphone coverage in the whole of Nigeria, and I would say in the next five years you are going to see coverage all over Nigeria for telecom and the big reason is that you don’t have these cables anymore.
So if you use the same concept for power, you can get rid of cables now, and all of a sudden, and you can bring light, power, and telecoms to every rural community everywhere without having to have distribution.
Our technology is the key part that allows you to have all these off-grid systems. So now you can put up a light pole, Wi-Fi hotspot, security camera or cellphone tower anywhere you want and start to get these spots of energy whether it is at your house or down the street.
The grid system was designed to have some sense of organisation. Now, with this off-grid and everybody having its power wherever and whenever, would it breed some sort of confusion?
That is a very good question. It is the same analogue as the telephone system and since the telephone system was wired, the telephone companies thought of themselves as telephone line companies; they were in the business of managing the lines. But today, they don’t do that anymore, they are telephone service companies where they provide you with a service and the reason they can do that is because they can remotely manage and operate the network.
They don’t need the landline to operate the telecom network. With our technology, what we have built is the brains of this off-grid system; so instead of having to control power by having these wiring, we put the brain at each of these small spots and managed it as a service. So you put a solar street light or solar powered cellphone and we are doing, with Raeanna, both street light, and cellphone towers and Wi-Fi hotspot too, the power is power service, not a landline service; so you can remotely manage, operate and control it.
The other thing that is big benefit of our technology is that because we can remotely control and operate it, it means that the technician doing the work no longer needs to be the expert technician from the company, it means the rural person in the town can do whatever needs to be done concerning maintenance and installations because we tell him what to do.
So we can diagnose what the problem is and we can tell him what to do. The person doesn’t need any training. For example, when you bought your phone, you didn’t read the manual on where to plug the cable, you kinda knew that this one goes into there because it is the only one that fits and it is the same with our technology.
We have colour coded connectors and when the technician gets it, he plugs red into red, yellow into yellow, blue into blue and he’s done, and most of the maintenance goes away – 75 percent of the maintenance is gone away and the remaining 25 percent we can use local people to do the installations because the training and expertise that they need is not specialized, it is very simple to do.
From a layman point of view, how can off-grids work in a city like Lagos? Do we need them for small communities or streets or house-to-house?
No, once you understand that the cost of the cabling is 50 percent the cost of electricity, then the idea is to get rid of the cables. So put the power right where it is needed. So you drive along and you need to power a streetlight, a market square, a school, church, you just plunk a pole down and it is all in the pole, no cabling required. And if you want to power 10 streetlights, you need 10 solar panels since it takes one solar panel for one streetlight. So why would you put 10 solar panels in a central area and wire to the ten street lights when you can put one solar panel on each pole? Plus it doesn’t use the land, it is on top of the pole because you don’t want to have that on the land because you want to use the land for farming, living and other things. So it is completely decentralized as it is right at the location. But it is not for every use as bigger buildings, bigger areas need to have power from the grid. With off-grid power you can right size the grid to where you need it. For example, it would be cheaper if this whole parking lot [Four Points By Sheraton, Lagos) was connected to solar than to do all the wiring.
Let’s talk about your projects. We learnt Clear Blue Technologies has announced partnerships with some Nigerian firms. We would like to have details on this partnership and the project you are working on?
Raeanna is a very interesting company. I met them through three or four different connections. They are very entrepreneurial, they are focused on helping rural areas with telecoms, power, Wi-Fi services and security and they had seen that many of these solar systems were having lots of problems. So, in their experience, when they talked to the government, they saw that what they installed was not working properly as some of the batteries were bad.
Basically, the statistics for streetlight and solar systems that are small like this is that 50 percent of them fail, they don’t work properly. Nigeria is a very harsh environment, it is as harsh as north Canada.
You have a lot of dust and dirt, very hot weather, and these are difficult for solar systems. So they talked to some of our other partners who advised them to talk to Clear Blue Technologies.
They bought a few test systems from us and they tried our technology and tested us here in Nigeria to make sure it works. And now Raeanna has forecast that it is rolling out a thousand small cellphone systems across rural Nigeria and they hope after they do Nigeria they can expand to other African countries because they are good business people. These cellphone towers now use satellite connections to the Internet and to the cellphone systems, so they can plunk the tower down, they use the satellite to connect, they put cellphone coverage service in then they have an off-grid system.
They will operate that throughout Africa and they are hoping to bring all of the big telephone carriers on the systems, so that when you are in that town, you got 9mobile, MTN, and all the different carriers because the tower they are going to put in will support all the different service providers. So they have partnered with us to provide the systems, and one of the things that we do is because we know that our whole purpose is to make it reliable and work, you don’t just say take it and go have fun with that, we actually operate and manage it as well. So Raenna has a control center where they can log in and see everything but our control center is watching it as well. So if we see a problem in the system or alarm or if it is going to be bad weather for a few days, then we can remotely help and support these systems. The cellphone towers are basically lighter, they never have to go to them, and they don’t have to touch them because they can be controlled remotely from our system.
We learnt you are also working with Nuran. What is your collaboration with Nuran?
So, Facebook basically wants to bring the Internet to all of Africa and they have started a project called Telecom Infra Project (TIP) and they are looking at all the problems as to why there is telephone service in Lagos and Abuja but not in the north and other rural areas. And they partnered with another Canadian company called NURAN, to build a cellphone radio that is specifically for rural telephoning.
There are two or three companies that do that and one of them is NURAN, so NURAN is providing the rural cell telephoning systems, and we are providing the rural power system and Raenna are making the investments, so they invest and build those systems, and own and operate them and get ongoing revenue, so they are making big investment in building and operating these systems.
So you are not investing, you are just a technical partner?
In this first phase, we are not bringing money.
Whenever you want to bring in money, it takes time and we wanted to move quickly. But the Canadian government is much focused on exports to Africa especially clean energy.
You may know our new prime minister, Justin Trudeau, so the Canadian government export agency, Export Development Corporation, does provide financing guarantee and we have partners for financing so our hope is that when we roll out some bigger projects, we hope to do a lot of street lights in Nigeria, that we would also bring financing as well.
What is the minimum and maximum size of an off-grid system, and how is this consistent across countries and organizations?
An off-grid system can be any size; most companies in the world were focused on the solar renewable that plugs into the grid or that does a town and those systems are called microgrid system.
They are different technologies from when you go really small. So our systems are really focused on zero to 10 kilowatts.
You know there is the whole Internet of things devices. So we are looking at street lights, security cameras, telephone systems, agriculture controls and sensors, oil and gas sensors, mining sensors and those kinds of the smaller internet of things devices because the technology is more difficult in that area.
More importantly because you don’t have unlimited mass amount of power – you have small and so if we were all connected together then if this guy runs out of power then it wouldn’t matter because he can get from others, but because each person has his own power, you have to power manage the device, because once it runs out of power, you are done.
So managing it to make sure that the system is fully reliable like the energy of an off-grid system in the north versus the long coast is two totally different systems because the weather is different and we are focused on patents and technologies on how to make small, we call that Nano grid so we are focusing on 0-250 kilowatts hour per day, so a ten, twenty or thirty kilowatts generating system every day.
So what is the average cost of providing a kilowatt of power from your technology?
You take a regular street light and you make it as an off-grid street light, the whole off-grid components, the solar panels, batteries, our technology, the cabling, all of the extra stuff required can start at $500-$800. When you look at a cellphone tower it depends on the amount of power they run but the off-grid power for a system like that would be from $4000-$10000, and for that you just plunk it down, it is installed in a day, that is everything you need, there is no construction, no timeline just everything you need.
So for example, when we had the big hurricane in Puerto Rico, we put cell phone systems in here within days, we flew them in and we had them running. And they won’t have power for years but wherever we were, they have got power right within 24 hours.
So your technology for Nigeria is mainly solar, do you have any other projects on other renewables?
We do have hybrid systems. So our technology support solar, wind- solar, solar hybrid with diesel on grid but we do a lot of windsolar systems. So, in those areas where there is a lot of wind, we could support that but wind technology is more expensive though so sometimes you don’t need it. Solar is good enough and you have a lot of sun here many systems might not need wind because it is expensive technology.
To what extent should the hybrid with diesel technology be counted as off grid?
Well, anything that is disconnected from the grid is technically of the grid but when we design a system, we design a system 100 percent solar or 99 percent solar and the diesel is only the emergency back-up.
It is just when there is a problem like extreme weather, so we have a pattern on weather forecast, it is like my father used to run out of gas all the time when I was a kid, he had a canister in the back and would have to walk to the gas station. But you and I never run out of gas anymore because the car tells us it is getting low.
So we have a patent on weather forecasting and we can look forward on what is the weather for the next five or six days and if we are going to run out of gas, we can manage through it. So most of the time, we only use diesel if it is really mission critical, like if it would be used for security camera, but I would say less than 5 percent of our systems are with diesel, most people are using solar because solar is cheaper than diesel, because solar panel lasts for 25 years, and you don’t have to put gas in it and it has no moving parts, unlike a diesel generator. So we try to stay mostly solar.
We have been hearing about solar panels for a while but in Nigeria, the cost of acquiring one is still very high, so with your coming, will the prices come down?
Yes, it has been coming down, like when we started this company, 7 years ago, the solar panels we used were costing over $1400 and today it is about $200, so it has reduced a lot in six years and I believe it is still going to push down, and I believe that as it becomes more widely adopted, price will come down.
Would you consider vegetable oil as a renewable energy application if it is used to power a generator?
I don’t know the answer to that. I’m not an expert but I believe that yes, it is a renewable energy, something you can renew every year. I don’t know about the state of agriculture in Nigeria but I know in North America, the cost of food is very expensive and part of the reason is because people are using the farm produce for fuel instead of food.
So, now there is a big push to push it back the other way, to use solar and other forms of renewables and using the agriculture land for food. As you know, Canada is a large oil country too, we have a lot of oil, I don’t think oil is going anywhere soon but it is a question of right-sizing every industry for the best application to use it for.
Our business case is not so much to displace oil and gas but to displace the cabling, and the cabling and distribution takes so much time and money and it is very dirty. It is really about the lowest cost solution and our programmes don’t require government subsidies. Because, in America, if you are doing solar into the grid, you need to have government subsidies to do that, but in this case, our customers are not getting government subsides so for example, last year, we did four projects with U.S. government, even under Trump, who is antigreen energy. Why? Because it was cheaper to go off-grid than on-grid. So we did four projects with U.S government because it was going to cost them more money to do the cabling, concrete and all that stuffs than to go with the on-grid system.
So going forward, are you looking to establish an office here in Nigeria, since more of these projects will be coming?
I don’t know, but if we did, it would be a joint partnership with a Nigerian company. As I said, one of the great things about being a Nigerian company is that we have the multi-culturalism, we have people from twenty different countries in our office and we really want to partner with local companies.
So if there is going to be an office, it would be the joint venture with someone here. So we would see how the next few years go, but that is part of the reason why I’m here, for us to get to that point where we can open an office here.