Almost 30% of the 7.5 billion world population has no or unreliable access to electricity. Because of these peoples’ remote locations and geographical or financial limits the electricity grid simply has not reached them, yet. Cause if it is up to Nishant Narayan the future will hold clean energy access for all. As a Delft Global fellow, he researches off-grid solutions. “The beautiful part is that most of the places with electricity issues happen to lie in the equatorial and tropical belts. So, solar-based solutions are a no-brainer.”

Climbing the energy ladder

Nishant’s research focuses on how to improve solar-based energy solutions. Providing someone in an un-electrified region with solar energy doesn’t solve the problem, he explains. “It is crippling to think of energy access as a have or have not kind of thing. In fact, you should talk about a layered type of energy access. In terms of solar-based solutions, at the most basic level, you have solar-based energy lights, at the second layer you have solar home systems and as the power requirement rises you go higher up this energy ladder. The present solar home systems can power small appliances, like television or fan, and definitely help someone climb the electrification ladder, but they have their limits. It will never match the energy connection we have here in the West, where you can decide to do your laundry right now, without thinking about whether it is rainy or sunny outside.”

High-power appliances

Nishant has identified two main problems with the current standalone solar home systems being used for off-grid electrification. The fact that you have to know the exact load it can take; exactly which appliances can be attached before designing the system, and the fact that these systems are not all-inclusive; not all appliances will work on it. When his team did fieldwork in Cambodia, they discovered the importance of this drawback. “We got to know that people really wanted to buy things like a rice cooker or water kettle. A water kettle is a pretty cheap product. They can afford it, but their current solar home system will be unable to power such a high-power appliance. If you are going to provide people with an energy system, it should be able to have all the capacities that you are promising elsewhere in the world. That’s the idea of equality.”

Interconnected micro-grid

Just increasing the battery size won’t work. Batteries are expensive and don’t have a long life-expectancy. Instead, Nishant sees the solution in a modular and interconnected design for these solar home systems. “If you want to climb up the energy ladder you need modularity in your design; you need to be able to add things to it. And you need interconnectivity because with that you don’t need to unnecessarily oversize individual solar home system to run an appliance which consumes a lot of energy. Instead, you use the energy of this interconnected micro-grid.

The idea of a solar-based micro-grid is not new, but I approach it differently. Generally, this possible solution to the energy crisis is treated as a planned micro-grid in which, let’s say, one hundred houses are attached to centralized solar panels and storage. Thus, a top-down approach. I look at it from the perspective of each and every individual solar home system, whose households are only interconnected when they are ready for this. Think of it as a bottom-up, organically growing micro-grid. This is bottom-up in the crudest sense. It doesn’t come from the government; it starts with the household itself. That way you are sure that whoever opts for this solution bases this choice on his or her own financial capability and motivation.”

A roadmap for the future

Nishant’s system design would be better adaptable to changes in a user’s needs and demands. To gain more insights he works closely together with industrial designer Jan-Carel Diehl, who is an expert on human-centered design with a special focus on emerging markets. Another important partner to test his findings with is SolarWorks!, a TU Delft start-up company which sells solar home systems in Mozambique. Though for Nishant, his research isn’t just about the creation of a prototype. “My research should be seen as a roadmap of sorts, for people who are trying to tackle this kind of problem. How far can they take the technology as it is now? What else do we need to do to think of possible problems that might arise? How to be best prepared for the future?”

Co-workers:  Zian Qin, Jan Carel Diehl, Pavol Bauer, Miro Zeman

Global Research Fellowship

Global Challenges
Clean energy access for un(der)-electrified regions

High-tech Science
Solar power, energy storage, DC microgrids, power management

Co-Creation
SolarWorks! (Netherlands/Mozambique), KamWorks (Cambodia)