Solar ORC: Affordable, Renewable Energy for Off-grid Institutions

Solar ORC: Affordable, Renewable Energy for Off-grid Institutions

Organization type: 
nonprofit/ngo/citizen sector
$10,000 - $50,000
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.

In the world's most rural areas, underfunded institutions such as schools and health clinics struggle to provide quality services without electricity or hot water. Currently, electrification of these institutions proceeds slowly with expensive grid extension, photovoltaic panels or diesel generators. STG has developed a better solution: a miniaturized solar thermal power plant using low cost solar collectors and a novel ORC engine that can provide clean electricity and hot water at a fraction of the cost of competing systems.

About Project

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

We work primarily with a talented group of Government of Lesotho engineers and technicians to serve the needs of the rural health care providers in Lesotho. Lesotho, while politically stable, is one of the most impoverished countries in the world, and currently only ~15% of its 1.8 million citizens have access to electricity. Further, the AIDS infection rate is over 35% and outbreaks of resistant TB strains are common. The mission of health clinics is thus critical for providing rural citizens with quality care, a mission crippled by a lack of access to energy as over 90% of the country’s 175 health clinics are in areas identified by the government as “unelectrifiable” due to the rugged terrain and sparse population. Over the past five years, we have had the opportunity to engage with a wide range of stakeholders in Lesotho, including staff at rural clinics, the Ministry of Health, NGOs managing rural clinics, and international funding organizations such as the World Bank and Millennium Challenge Corporation. A lack of electricity and of hot running water have been identified as primary causes of both sub-quality health care and frequent staff turnover at rural clinics, where educated health care providers find living conditions far degraded from similar positions in the capital city. Other electrification efforts, with PV panels or diesel generators, sit unused due to unrepaired damages or a lack of fuel, however the Solar ORC, maintained by our local staff and fueled by the sun, stands to address the needs of these institutions without risks posed by current options.

Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!

We are targeting the need and demand for electricity at these rural institutions by creating an affordable option for renewable energy within their home market. This is in direct contrast to other programs that rely upon imported technology, both costly and slow to be repaired when damaged; by reducing the cost of electrification, we are also directly enabling governments to improve more facilities at a faster rate within their fixed budget. An additional advantage of this strategy is the creation of local jobs and sales, which continues to benefit the local economy as the enterprise grows. Our technology is also unique, primarily in the scale of the design. Our Solar Organic Rankine Cycle (ORC) is inspired by large solar thermal power plants (megawatt-scale) but redesigned for low cost off-grid deployment at the small scale (1-10s of kilowatts) by using simple manufacturing methods and repurposed, already mass-manufactured OEM equipment. The Solar ORC generates emissions-free electricity at a cost lower than other commercial competitors: less than $0.20/kWh compared to $0.30 for photovoltaic (PV) panels or $0.50 for diesel generators (numbers cited for costs in the southern African market). It also provides cogeneration, i.e., thermal energy for space or water heating, at no extra cost; health clinics or boarding schools that would otherwise need a secondary system for water heating will save over $10K compared to purchase of a passive solar water heating system or over $27K compared to use of a propane water heater.
Impact: How does it Work

Example: Walk us through a specific example(s) of how this solution makes a difference; include its primary activities.

STG develops energy technology and trains local partners to manufacture and distribute it. We engage in R&D, technology transfer, training, manufacturing and marketing. To date our major activity has been the development and testing of our Solar ORC technology, completed through partnerships with the Government of Lesotho, MIT, and Eckerd College. The culmination of this work is the training of local partners who are then well-placed to market, manufacture, and sell the Solar ORC within their home markets. This both creates high-quality technical jobs and provides an affordable, renewable energy generation technology to enable electrification of rural institutions at a lower cost and thus higher rate.
About You
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About Your Organization
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Organization Country

, MA

Country where this project is creating social impact

, BE

How long has your organization been operating?

1‐5 years

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What stage is your project in?

Operating for 1‐5 years

Share the story of the founder and what inspired the founder to start this project

During his Peace Corps duty in Lesotho (2000-02), STG President Matt Orosz experienced first-hand what it is like to live in a rural mountain village with no electricity or running water. He witnessed the constraints on local schools in providing quality education and the desire of rural inhabitants for energy simply to provide lighting after sundown or to power a radio. Impressed by the simplicity of a locally-constructed parabolic solar bread cooker used at a regional vocational school, Matt began to experiment with ideas for converting solar energy into other useful forms, like hot water and electricity. He returned to the United States to pursue a graduate degree in engineering at MIT where these ideas were slowly formed into designs, experiments, and prototype technologies. As the design progressed and initial prototypes were tested in Lesotho in cooperation with the same vocational school, enthusiasm for the project developed within the Government of Lesotho; receipt of the World Bank Development Marketplace Grant in 2006 allowed Matt and his team to solidify a partnership with the government to formally develop and test several prototypes in rural settings in Lesotho. Work over the past five years has led to a standardized design for a clinic-scale system that can be manufactured, installed, and maintained using local labor; our first user test site installation, at Pilot Health Clinic, was completed in early 2011, is undergoing quality testing, and will be fully commissioned by the end of the year.

Social Impact
Please describe how your project has been successful and how that success is measured

Our project structure and dissemination strategy imply benefits for a number of stakeholder groups, including local job holders, health clinic staff, and rural inhabitants served by these health care centers. We measure success in our ability to provide these benefits as well as our ability to provide a technologically sound product at an affordable price and believe that our project has succeeded to date in addressing the demands of each of these requirements.

Over the past five years, we have engaged with both the Government of Lesotho and local engineers and entrepreneurs to build a team of enthusiastic individuals who have worked with STG to build and install the many prototypes we have fielded since 2006. We have provided technical training, technology transfer, and employment to over 20 individuals during this time, including engineers, technicians, and vocational interns.

Systems built and installed by this team have provided hot water and/or electricity to individuals at several locations, including Bethel High School (~300 students in boarding dorms), Ha Teboho Village (~200 people), and the Pilot Health Clinic (~50-80 patients/day, 2-5 staff living on site).

Our technology has been successfully engineered for local construction, to support our proposed distribution method, and can be provided at a cost that undercuts all of the competitors within this market. The standardized system size is appropriate for use at most rural health clinics and schools and, because of this, is immediately ready for use worldwide.

How many people have been impacted by your project?


How many people could be impacted by your project in the next three years?

More than 10,000

How will your project evolve over the next three years?

We expect to bring this project to scale over the next three years, starting with expansion to a number of health clinics in Lesotho (in conjunction with local governmental and non-governmental partners) and proceeding to deployment in a second regional location. Training, technology transfer, and manufacturing design will allow these two partner ventures to take the product to scale, with approximately 30-50 installations expected per partner venture over the next 2-3 years. Our team has already completed a survey of the health care sector in a number of countries with appropriate solar resources, and we believe that the most promising expansion areas are India and China; networking and partner development within these markets has already been initiated over the past few years.

What barriers might hinder the success of your project and how do you plan to overcome them?

Barriers to the success of this project include long-term stability of regional partners and economic competition of alternative options for rural electrification. To address the first point, we have invested several years building strong partnerships with relevant organizations within Lesotho, including the national government which tends to have a more stable long-range vision. Training and employee development during this time has built a core team of enthusiastic individuals who will contribute to the creation of a local for-profit venture based on our Solar ORC technology. Because expansion to a second regional location is the next important step for our project, we have also been reaching out to potential partners and funders interested in project replication in India. Careful consideration of the options and partner organizations will be critical for the success of this subsequent partner project.

Economic competition is the second potential threat to our work; prices in Lesotho are currently prohibitively high for both photovoltaic panels and diesel fuel, however while fuel prices are only expected to increase, the price of PV panels is projected to decrease over time. Consistent engineering effort has been expended to optimize the Solar ORC design for an affordable price, and design for manufacturing - in conjunction with scaled up manufacturing volume - is expected to further decrease costs. These efforts will be undertaken in early 2012, following completion of commissioning and monitoring of our first two full-scale systems in Lesotho and at Eckerd College.

Tell us about your partnerships

We have developed strong partnerships in both the USA and in Lesotho to support the development and demonstration of our Solar ORC technology and the validity of our proposed dissemination strategy. Within the USA, we have partnered with MIT, where STG President is currently completing his doctoral degree, to test the Solar ORC within a lab setting. In addition, a cooperative project with both Sopogy, Inc. and Eckerd College has led to a long-term technology testbed installation on Eckerd's campus in St. Pete, FL.

In Lesotho, we have reached out to stakeholders involved at all levels with rural health care and rural electrification. This includes funding (e.g., the World Bank, GEF), clinic management (the Ministry of Health, Partners in Health, Christian Health Association of Lesotho), technology development (the Government of Lesotho's Appropriate Technology Services, local entrepreneurs and engineers), and outreach/education (the National University of Lesotho, Lerotholi Polytechnic). We have formal partnerships with both the Ministry of Health and the Appropriate Technology Services to complete our first user-test system at the government-managed Pilot Health Clinic in the Berea District. We have also consistently welcomed vocational interns from several local universities and vocational schools. Work completed in cooperation with Partners in Health has resulted in data describing both electricity demand of the few electrified rural clinics as well as detailed designs addressing the expanding needs these clinics will have over the next 5-10 years.

Explain your selections

To date, funding for our projects has come primarily from competitive grant/prize winnings, including the 2006 World Bank Development Marketplace Grant, prizes in several business plan competitions, and the 2010 Conoco Philips Energy Prize. As a registered 501(c)(3) public charity, we have also received donations from a number of individuals and private foundations since 2006.

How do you plan to strengthen your project in the next three years?

We plan to strengthen our project in the near term by further strengthening current partnerships, by creating new regional partnerships, and by bringing additional engineering talent to the team. Within Lesotho, our partnerships have, to date, focused on design prototyping and installation; we hope to take these to the next level by spurring creation of a local for-profit enterprise (incorporated early in 2011) to manage sales and installation of Solar ORC systems. New partnerships, with both manufacturing partners and regional funders, will be developed to support a second regional project targeted at electrification of health care institutions in India. Because of the sizable market in this region of the world, we expect this manufacturing project to further decrease system costs and improve system reliability as we reach volume production. Finally, we intend to grow STG's core team by hiring up to three additional engineers and business experts to further refine both the technology and the sales/marketing methodologies. This will also allow the team to explore other applications for the Solar ORC (e.g., refrigeration for preservation of food, fruit/vegetable drying, use at small regional shops) that may require different technological or marketing techniques.

Which barriers to employment does your innovation address?
Please select up to three in order of relevancy to your project.


Lack of visibility and investment


Need for regulatory/policy support



Please describe how your innovation specifically tackles the barriers listed above.

STG brings: (1) provision of technology transfer of the Solar ORC without the need to fund costly R&D, and (2) access to patient international investment opportunities building on our partnerships and experiences. This promotes rural electrification from the arena of international aid to that of international business development. Ongoing marketing and networking with governmental and international organizations has provided visibility for our technology; continued work in this area is expected to lead to specific support for use of the Solar ORC in, e.g., World Bank sponsored electrification projects. Training and local hiring policies have led to employment of > 20 individuals in Lesotho alone during early project stages; this number will increase as partner for-profit ventures grow.

Are you trying to scale your organization or initiative?
If yes, please check up to three potential pathways in order of relevancy to you.


Grown geographic reach: Multi-country


Repurposed your model for other sectors/development needs


Enhanced existing impact through addition of complementary services

Please describe which of your growth activities are current or planned for the immediate future.

Our partnership model focuses on training and technology transfer to manufacturing partners within regional hubs; these multiple 'franchises' are then able to simultaneously address demands in their local markets. Expansion to two additional regional partnerships is expected within 3-5 years.

Currently, our technology is standardized for use at off-grid institutions such as health clinics and schools, however use of this technology would also be appropriate for agriculture (irrigation pumping), powering of regional shops/workshops, etc. We will be investing in both the technology and marketing adjustments necessary to pursue these secondary markets within the next 3-5 years.

Do you collaborate with any of the following: (Check all that apply)

Technology providers, NGOs/Nonprofits, Academia/universities.

If yes, how have these collaborations helped your innovation to succeed?

Collaborations with both universities and technology providers within the US has allowed our team to complete substantial bench-testing of our design in addition to creation of a long-term technology monitoring and test site (St. Pete, FL). Work in conjunction with other NGOs in Lesotho has provided the team with a critical understanding of the demands of rural health care providers along with the manner in which these requirements are expected to grow and change over the next five years and as these facilities are electrified. Government partnerships in Lesotho have created a formal structure for both demonstration of this technology for use in government-sponsored institutions and have provided a venue for our first clinic-scale user-test installation.