SWE designs solar system for East Africa

ECE News

Jonathan Damery, ECE ILLINOIS

Story Highlights

  • The Society of Women Engineers (SWE) at the University of Illinois has designed a solar system for rural Mozambique and Tanzania.
  • Consisting of two solar panels and four batteries, the system could accomodate all of the cooking and lighting demands for four neighboring houses.
  • The system will be presented later this month at the Team Tech Competition during the SWE Annual Conference.

In rural Mozambique and Tanzania, the pursuit of firewood can take hours. When it is found, the loads must be carried long distances back to the village. It’s strenuous, health-compromising work, often done by women and girls. Yet firewood is a necessity. Fewer than three out of every twenty people in these countries have access to electricity (and those three are mostly urban). Meals are cooked over open fire, and for families without a kerosene lantern, nighttime lighting comes from the same source.

SWE Team Tech members test their solar system outside of Everitt Lab.
SWE Team Tech members test their solar system outside of Everitt Lab.
Rural electrification is an undisputable imperative, and last fall, the Society of Women Engineers (SWE) at the University of Illinois began designing a solar system specifically for these two East African countries. Their system, which will be presented later this month at the Team Tech Competition during the SWE Annual Conference, would accommodate all of the cooking and lighting demands for four neighboring houses.

“We’ve been doing some programing to see if the system will make sense with the lifestyles and habits of people in these communities,” said Alex Knicker, the director of the team and a senior civil engineering student. The models take into account the residents’ hours of waking and going to bed, the normal times and duration of cooking, and so forth. And that power demand data is compared with the amounts of solar irradiation available at points throughout the year. 

With only two solar panels and four batteries (rated at 200 ampere-hours), the simulations show that the system should be capable of meeting peak demand. “We did testing on the panels to see if the batteries are actually getting charged, and to see how fast it gets charged and discharges,” said team member Niranjana Sreekumar, a senior electrical engineering student. “It seems to be working pretty well.”

The system is relatively simple, providing enough power for only primary needs—cooking and lighting—but that simplicity ensures a low-cost product. “A big part of it is looking at cost analysis, and how comparable it is to their cost of kerosene or electricity in Africa already, and if we can compete with that price,” said Knicker. “And then we’ve been looking at the social, environmental, and economic aspects of it.”

In addition to the panels and the batteries, the system uses a microcontroller that automates the distribution of power to various loads in each of the four houses connected to the system. This device could also lower the initial cost of investment. The microcontroller could track the power consumption, and a usage rate could be charged, essentially creating a gradual payback plan. “[It depends] on what kind of business plan the company decides to go with,” said Sreekumar. 

“We also looked at different options of how we would sell the product to the consumer,” said Olaoluwapo Ajala, an electrical engineering graduate student who has helped the team with their program simulations. “We came up with selling it to the government, selling it to an NGO. We looked at several different options, and that’s where we’re still deciding on.”

SWE Team Tech.
SWE Team Tech.
The team is sponsored by S&C Electric Company, a global provider of electric power systems equipment and services, based in Chicago, which has provided funding and engineering resources to the team. The team talks with an engineer from the company once a week, and two S&C engineers have visited campus on multiple occasions.

“They came over here just recently,” said Sreekumar. “That was really helpful, because our system wasn’t working for some reason. When we’d connect the panels, it wouldn’t be charging, and they helped figure out what the issue was.” Last year, over spring break, the team visited the S&C Electric headquarters, where the students tested their system, connecting it with small loads to ensure that everything worked according to the design.

On campus, the team has been working in the Advanced Power Electronics Laboratory in Everitt. Assistant Professor Robert Pilawa-Podgurski and Professor Peter W Sauer have provided oversight for its development. Kevin Colrvay, a research engineer who manages power electronics workspaces, provided hands-on support with building and troubleshooting the system. “He knows every single item and piece of equipment in that room,” said Sreekumar. “He was really helpful.” 

Team Tech members come from across Engineering at Illinois, with about twenty members in total. “It’s really a diverse project, even though it seems electrical,” said Sreekumar. “That’s why we recruit people from all engineering sides…everyone was really interested in the project. It’s about enthusiasm and knowing how to research well.”

At the end of the month, about half of the team will travel to Baltimore, Maryland, where their system will be presented for the Team Tech Competition, and eventually, once every design and market consideration has been finalized, the system could travel beyond Illinois, beyond Maryland, and into the communities where it is most needed. 

Update: The team finished second place in the 2013 Team Tech Competition. 

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