Solar trainers in East Timor

Ten Australian not-for-profit organisations that have developed technology-driven ideas for making the world a better place have been announced as finalists in the Google Impact Challenge. Four of the proposals – one chosen by an open public vote – will be awarded $500,000 each, along with mentoring and support from Google staff.

Several of the finalists are proposing projects that combine positive social impact with sustainability benefits: the Alternative Technology Association’s solar lighting for East Timor; Engineers Without Borders’ biodigester toilets for Cambodia that also produce cooking gas and fertiliser; and The Asthma Foundation’s proposed mobile sensors and app for accessing real-time air quality data.

Other finalists related to sustainability/environment are Penguin Foundation, to develop magnetic particle technology to remove oil from contaminated wildlife; Zoo and Aquarium Association, Australasia, for an app to crowdsource data from travellers about the illegal wildlife trade; and the University of Technology Sydney for sensors to detect and report excessive groundwater depletion in arid regions.

The ATA’s solar lighting for remote households in East Timor project builds on work done by ATA volunteers including TAFE teachers and renewable energy technicians over the last decade. Initially, the focus was on installing solar systems for community buildings and schools then also for homes, with about 1000 systems installed to date.

For the past four years the ATA’s focus has also been on building capacity in the local population by training people in solar power system operations, maintenance and repair, ATA chief executive Donna Luckman told The Fifth Estate.

The project proposed for the Impact Challenge will involve the installation of village lighting systems on 2000 homes in villages that will never have main grid connectivity. These systems have been specifically developed for the ATA’s project by Melbourne firm Plasmatronics, and combine LED lighting and a mobile phone charger powered by solar.

In addition to the systems being installed, training will be provided in conjunction with an East Timor-based training institute that has been the ATA’s project partner and has already developed a small team of solar technicians and trainers.

“We can roll out the technology, but we need the people [of the villages] to be able to maintain them,” Ms Luckman said.

“In East Timor people have energy poverty issues. We have got the technology, the training and the program in place to help them develop a solar industry into the future.”

The project is also replicable and scalable, and Ms Luckman said the ATA were in talks with other organisations about undertaking similar projects in places including Vanuatu, Bouganville, Papua New Guinea and some of Indonesia’s small islands north of Darwin.

The Engineers Without Borders project aims to expand a floating biodigester and waterless toilet system that was developed in conjunction with Cambodian based organisation Live & Learn. The system has been piloted for the past six years, and resolves a critical issue for many Cambodian communities that lack sanitation infrastructure. The biodigester converts human and animal wastes into gas that can be used for cooking and high-quality fertiliser.

One of the systems that was built for a floating village was profiled in Sheena Ong’s documentary, The Humanitarian Engineer.

If successful in gaining one of the four Impact grants, EWB and Live & Learn will develop and implement an end-to-end business model for the systems, refining the technology and establishing and supporting a network of 25 local entrepreneurs to manufacture and install them in flooding and floating communities. EWB estimates their project will improve the lives of 15,000 people with 2500 systems installed by 2017. Within a decade, 1.2 million lives can be improved.

The Asthma Foundation NSW’s project proposed to develop a mobile and web-based app that will enable people with asthma to predict and prevent asthma attacks.

NSW CEO Michele Goldman said if successful, they will develop a mobile and web-based app to enable people with asthma to predict and prevent asthma attacks through access to real-time air quality data and the level of pollutants and allergens from a range of sources such as pollen, bushfire smoke and air pollution.

“We know that for the one in 10 people with asthma it can be a struggle to manage their condition when air quality is poor,” Asthma Foundation NSW chief executive Michele Goldman said.

“Having this information easily available will assist people to identify when they need to take proactive steps to minimise their exposure to harmful pollutants to avoid asthma flare-ups.”

The winners of the Impact Challenge will be announced on 14 October.

Voting for the people’s choice winner closes 13 October.

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