Nishant Narayan

Science for the benefit of people. All people. Worldwide.

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Affordable access to solar energy for low-income households

Two hours without electricity a day, if you are lucky enough to belong to the 60% of households to be hooked up to the grid at all. It’s a reality faced by many South Africans today. The rich can buy themselves a back-up system to remedy the problem. But what if you’re poor and live in a township where even an outdated and inadequate power network is something to be grateful for? For these people Nishant Narayan is developing a new, low-cost technology which will provide individual households with electricity, not just in South Africa but all over the world. And he’s using solar energy to do it.

Narayan has found that exploring a new technology for a developing country called for a drastically different mindset. “My main focus was always on high-tech power electronics, which aims to keep everything as efficient and small as possible. Smartphones, for example, usually contain at least ten or more power converters to deliver power from the battery to, for instance, the camera application or the telephone application. With the TU Delft Global Research Fellowship project, my prime concern is price: everything needs to be as cheap as possible. It’s something most scientists don’t really care about. They come up with a high-tech design and let the market determine the price. But the way a converter is designed can have a big impact on costs.” The focus on price inspired Narayan to explore an innovative technology. “Normally several power converters are used between all the components: one to deliver power directly from the solar panel to the fridge or the TV when the sun shines, one to deliver power from the battery to the fridge when it doesn’t, and one to deliver power from the solar panel to the battery when no electricity is used at all. But fewer components mean fewer costs. That is why I want to integrate everything into one system with a single converter. It would be a first. There is nothing on the market like it.”

Almost 40% of South African households is not connected to the grid. “Moreover, the network is too old and too small to cope with the number of connections it has to support. Last year it was decided to introduce a system of two-hour power cuts to ease the strain.” Everyone is told exactly when the power cuts are going to be. The schedule varies so people won’t be cut off at the same time every day. “We’re dealing with a huge infrastructure which can’t be changed from one day to the next, which is exactly why there is room for alternative solutions.”

To achieve his goal Narayan has enlisted the help of both the Architecture Department and the Industrial Design Department at Delft University of Technology. “We need to find a way of installing the metal-cased system in the township homes in such a way that it won’t be stolen. We also have to make it look nice. Township huts are small and the system will take up quite a bit of room. And it will all have to be done as cheaply as possible.” Another important project partner is SolarWorks!, a local company which has offices in Johannesburg, South Africa, and at the incubator YES!Delft. “Often designs fail because some practical aspect has been overlooked. It may be too expensive to produce, or not durable enough. You end up with a show case product, something that can be looked at and nothing more. That’s why having a local manufacturer on the team is so important. Producing the system locally will also create jobs. And if we can establish the model here we can go ahead in India and Cambodia as well, always keeping in mind what the local needs are, of course.”

Co-workers: Pavol Bauer, Laura Ramirez Elizondo, Sacha Silvester and Arjan van Timmeren

Global Research Fellowship

Global Challenges
Access to electricity in developing countries for people at the base of the pyramid

High-tech Science
Solar power, storage, power electronics, power management

Co-Creation
SolarWorks! (Netherlands, South Africa), City Power (South Africa), Indian Institute of Technology, Guhawati (India), Telemed Africa (South Africa), KamWorks (Cambodia)

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3

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