OpenStack-powered DreamCompute cloud computing helps keep rural microgrids up and running


Muhuru Bay, Kenya — At Kristy’s Cape Academy, a primary school in a small fishing village on the shore of Lake Victoria, the lights are on and students are learning thanks to the power of a microgrid.

The grid is the handiwork of Kilowatts for Humanity (KWH), a nonprofit organization that has been introducing electricity to rural communities globally for the past six years in an effort to end energy poverty. Born out of Seattle University, the organization’s mission is two-fold: to provide funds, volunteers, and technical expertise to organizations working locally to assist the development of sustainable communities in less developed regions and to research and offer educational opportunities supporting these goals. Volunteers at KWH are experienced in development work, many harnessing their past experiences with Engineers Without Borders, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Power & Energy Society and IEEE Smart Villages.

The organization has been able to take on an annual project for the past several years, working with communities in Kenya and Zambia to introduce appropriate electricity service via a sustainability first approach. In fact, all of KWH’s projects are vetted to identify and assess the potential of a community to support sustainable business. KWH then surrounds their electrification efforts with the support necessary to make a difference in the long term, raising funds and designing the technical specifications for the electrical infrastructure and developing the associated business and training plans, plus working with local or in-country vendors and contractors as a preference. The nonprofit provides on-going support for projects after their initial completion, remotely monitoring data gathered from project sites post-implementation and carrying out follow-up visits when needed. Their efforts shine on as they share their project designs and what they’ve learned, regularly publishing and presenting their projects for the benefit of the larger energy development community.

To collect and monitor data from microgrids created across various project locations, KWH uses OpenStack-based DreamCompute, a public cloud computing service provided by DreamHost. As an open source infrastructure-as-a-service platform, DreamCompute enables KWH to create a public cloud and collect and analyze data from their various locations, conveniently overseeing past projects to ensure the microgrids and other components continue to function properly. KWH uses DreamCompute’s computing power to run an integrated solution called Graphite, a database and a web application running with Apache2. KWH developed a light TCP application which listens to a port used by the datalogger and sends packets to the database.

“As we introduce these microgrids in remote and hard to reach locations, it’s important that we can keep an eye on them to make sure they’re continuing to provide the results we intended,” said Matthieu Bach, a project engineer working on advanced smart grid applications for KWH. “For our early data collecting and monitoring solutions, we used a simple local server in an apartment, no cloud involved. But as our projects grew, we knew we wanted a more reliable solution, and chose to move to the cloud. Studying our options, we selected the OpenStack-based DreamCompute, coming off a recommendation from a trusted colleague.”

Interestingly, Bach made the decision to leverage OpenStack based solely on its capabilities, not its name or reputation – a blind-taste test, if you will. “Honestly, we weren’t familiar with OpenStack when we chose this solution,” Bach continued, “but we did know what it enabled us to do. We now understand that that’s one of OpenStack’s strengths as well, the promise of keeping out of a developer’s way while helping them do their own thing.”

Recognizing that one in five people around the globe live without access to electricity and that half of those people live in sub-Saharan Africa, KWH has focused on this region. Most prominent of KWH’s recent projects is the Muhuru Bay Community Microgrid, designed to increase access to clean, sustainable electrical energy for Kristy’s Cape Academy and the rural community of Muhuru Bay, Kenya. While the electrification rate in urban Kenya is 51 percent, electricity is only available to one in every 20 rural Kenyans. This project called for the implementation of a 3kW community charging station, powered by renewable sources including installed wind turbines and solar panels.

Kristy’s Cape Academy is a co-ed school of over 300 students in a country where the average person receives only seven years of education. The Academy, which stands on a cape jutting out into Lake Victoria (an ideal location for sustainable energy production due to the high availability of wind and sunshine), does not turn away students because of a family’s inability to pay, currently educates over 40 students orphaned due to HIV/AIDS. Before the addition of electricity at the school and at homes in the community, classes and studying were literally limited by the light available. With the introduction of LED electric lights – healthier, safer and cheaper than the kerosene lamps they’ve replaced – educational opportunities have increased. With the nearest connection to the main electrical grid ten kilometers away, charging cell phones with local electricity is now considerably quicker and cheaper. Electricity has also benefited the community, with cell phones and radios enabling greater communication and commerce.

The microgrid and community charging station make use of solar panels and wind turbines sourced from Kenyan businesses. They now charge batteries used to power lights at the school, as well as portable battery and lighting kits. The school rents these light and battery kits to families in the community, granting them the benefits of lights and power — including the hottest local business, selling ice to the fishing trade — and creating income that is reinvested back into the school. The result is a business that sustains itself and adds to the prosperity of both the Academy and the local community, and will continue to do so into the future.

Now that installation is completed and the project is up and running, data is collected constantly to ensure the microgrid is working properly. “We have ambitious plans for Kilowatts for Humanity in the coming year,” said Bach. “In fact, the goal is for six or seven new projects, both in Africa and expanding to the Philippines. We’re also currently testing a system whereby we send our data for every project not to our servers but directly to DreamCompute, and from there we have a dashboard from which we can manage every project.”

Supported by OpenStack’s versatile capabilities in delivering cloud infrastructure, data handling and scalability, Kilowatts for Humanity looks to scale as well, multiplying the number of projects the organization can take on each year going forward, while making sure they’re continuing to empower communities at their project sites around the globe.

This story first appeared in the print edition of Superuser Magazine, distributed at the Summit Tokyo. If you’d like to contribute to the next edition, please get in touch: [email protected]