KiloWatts for Humanity Taps the Power of Clouds

Nonprofits and social service organizations face a growing array of business and IT challenges, including the ability to operate effectively and gauge performance. For KiloWatts for Humanity (KWH), which aims to bring electricity and sustainable energy businesses to portions of Kenya, Zambia and the Philippines, the task is nothing short of mission critical. About one in five people live without any electricity. “Without accurate information about performance and results it’s impossible to deliver the necessary results,” said Matthieu Bach, volunteer head of the IT organization for KWH.

Since 2009, the Seattle, Wash.-based organization—which oversees critical microgrid projects that deliver just enough power to keep mobile phones, flashlights and essential machines and electronics operating in villages and remote areas—relied on a single server to manage systems and track usage and performance patterns. In many locations, the organization assists in setting up a single solar kiosk but it must monitor how systems are operating and how much electricity they are pulling to avoid potential problems. In 2014, when the server crashed, the organization could not access reliable data for two days.

As a result, KWH began exploring other computing and IT infrastructure options. In July of the same year it ventured into the cloud. The organization turned to public cloud service DreamCompute (a branch of DreamHost) to deliver a stable and cost-effective environment.

“It was attractive because the cloud service provides a highly reliable infrastructure that allows us to accomplish all of our important tasks,” Bach said.

These include everything from internal business software to analytics from various locations in order to determine whether various components are charging effectively and what capacity limitations exist at a given location. “It is important to know whether it’s possible to add another freezer or battery charger,” he added.

The organization is making a real-world difference. For example, in Muhuru Bay, Kenya, the organization recently installed wind turbines and solar panels for the benefit of a co-ed school with more than 300 students, including 40 students orphaned because of HIV/AIDS. The microgram project introduced a 3 kilowatt community charging station along with LED electric lights that shine within the school and local homes. The project, which aids about 640 additional community members, has eliminated the need for people to travel up to 10 kilometers to reach the nearest grid connection so they can recharge their mobile phones. The area has an overall electrification rate of about 5 percent. The school also rents out portable battery and lighting kits to the community.

At present, Bach said the organization is operating dashboards for two locations 24/7 and it hopes to have additional dashboards operating later this year. These will deliver information and insights about other project locations.

“As a volunteer organization it’s necessary to operate in an affordable and efficient way. Low-cost cloud computing allows us to manage IT without the need for an IT department. We are able to do some amazing things on a very limited budget. It also allows non-hardware experts to configure and run solutions.”

Samuel Greengard
Samuel Greengard
Samuel Greengard writes about business, technology and other topics. His book, The Internet of Things (MIT Press) was released in the spring of 2015.

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