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Students trial ‘Energy Box’ microgrid in Rwanda

View of Kigali in Rwanda.

Two students from the University of Strathclyde are travelling to Rwanda to test a new smart grid controller they designed which aims to help people trade electricity.

The device will connect solar energy systems in 10 households in the village of Murambi in the north of the country to create a microgrid. Individuals can then buy and sell electricity from each other using their mobile phones.

The trial is part of the global final for the prestigious IEEE Empower a Billion Lives competition which aims to support the development of scalable technology to bring electricity to the 1 billion people around the world currently living without it.

Electricity services

In rural areas, Solar Home Systems (SHS) have proven a quick and effective means of bringing basic electricity services to areas where there were none.

However, despite the success of the SHSs, as much as 60% of generation from these systems is wasted while many others are still unable to afford them.

Bartek Soltowski, studying for a degree in Wind and Marine Energy Systems at the Centre for Doctoral Training developed the smart power management controller – the Energy Box – with support from third-year MEng Computer & Electronic Systems student Kyle Lawson, PhD student Jonathan Bowes of the Department of Electronic and Electrical Engineering and MSc Political Research student Fraser Stewart of the School of Government & Public Policy.

The Energy Box will be used to connect stand-alone SHSs installed by Imperial College London spin-out company BBOXX to form a community microgrid and allow unused energy to be shared across the newly-formed network.

Householders who do not have their own SHS would be able to buy electricity by connecting to the microgrid.

Bartek said: “Unlocking this energy also unlocks potential for people to buy and sell surplus energy to their friends and neighbours which is currently going to waste.

After supplying their lights and charging their mobile phones, those with a SHS installed at their home, can sell their surplus energy or use this to power higher energy devices such as TVs or refrigerators – perhaps even cookers.

“Meanwhile people unable to afford their own SHS can benefit from the surplus energy generated by those belonging to others, by simply ‘plugging into’ this newly formed microgrid; and so obtaining an electricity supply for basic lighting and phone charging, without the substantial upfront cost of solar panels and batteries.

“The local people are really excited about this trial and we’re really eager to see the outcome.”

Energy access

One of just 15 finalists from hundreds of initial applications, the Strathclyde team – which consists of students from engineering, political science, and business – were successful in winning Best Student team at the Europe and Africa regional final of IEEE Empower a Billion Lives competition to secure funding to hone their innovative energy access solution and test it in a Rwandan village.

The field trial will begin at the start of August and last for two to three weeks. The team will then travel to Baltimore to present their results to a panel of experts at the Global Final in September for a share of the substantial prize fund.

Success here will allow the team to develop the Energy Box further and ultimately deploy this technology at scale to improve the wellbeing and quality of life of some of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable communities.