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Power to the people


Power to the people

Lecturer Neal Wade is leading a project to develop much-needed energy systems for areas without access to modern power sources.

We might be used to charging our phones on demand and cooking our meals without a second thought. But this isn’t the case for everyone.

In some remote areas of the world and those lacking resources, it is not economical. Or, it’s simply impossible to create the national grid infrastructure that we take for granted.

Neal Wade is Lecturer in Power Systems at Newcastle University’s School of Engineering. He is leading a project that brings microgrids, essentially a more manageable infrastructure, to these parts of the world. Wherever possible they are based on clean, renewable energy sources such as solar.

A microgrid is an independent electricity supply system. One that is not connected to a national grid. It is most often found in remote areas that struggle to access enough power.

They include a generator and some form of storage. They have a footprint of somewhere between 10 and 20 square metres and supply a small group of energy users.

An abstract image of a smartphone plugged into the desert sand.

Managing microgrids

“The big difference with microgrids is that you need to balance the supply of power and consumption more carefully than in a grid system,” explains Neal.

"A regular grid would manage this for you. But where an area doesn’t have this infrastructure, that energy storage system must sit within the microgrid."

Energy storage is expensive, so creating these systems with an eye on cost-effectiveness is key. Neal explains: “It’s very important to design systems in such a way that you minimise the amount of energy storage you need to use. Then you operate it in a way that has the least degradation effect on that storage.”

Neal has found that one or two years after construction, a new energy storage system is often needed. But, this is not the only expense to consider.

There is also the lifetime running costs. Which include maintenance and repairs. As such, building microgrids in remote areas is not always feasible.

“All these things have to be balanced against one another,” says Neal. “There’s the initial cost of installing the microgrid, the cost of running it and a risk that the power is not always going to be available.

"Because if you make the storage system smaller, it’s cheaper, but it means you might not get the full service from the system all the time.”

Mobiles are widespread in Sub-Saharan Africa and a lot of people do their banking through their phones. But charging a phone can be tricky.

Neal Wade

Modernising daily life

At first glance, the primary benefit of this project would appear to be improving people’s quality of life. But, Neal points out that this is about modernisation more than anything else.

“People might be quite happy with their quality of life, so there’s a premise in there that we’re simply modernising the way that people live.”

However, there is clearly demand, particularly in one area where a desire for modernity doesn’t match the requisite energy supply.

“Mobile phone charging is a huge thing,” says Neal. “Mobiles are widespread in Sub-Saharan Africa. A lot of people do their banking through their phones. But charging a phone can be tricky.”

A lack of energy supply often has a damaging effect on education. This is a topic this project is working to tackle. “The amount of energy that’s used in a low-income country is just a fraction of what’s used in the developed world,” says Neal.

“A lot of labour is required in what people are doing, because of their lack of fuel. This impacts on their education, as they’ve got to spend more time looking after their basic needs.”

Improving access to energy will also make headway in improving the health of the people in these communities. Many homes will use kerosene or open fires for cooking.

Not only are these expensive and come with a plethora of supply-chain issues, but they are also polluting too.

Strength in numbers

Neal has been working with local communities. He has also been working with non-governmental organisations such as Practical Action. They implement best-practice findings from the private sector and research in these communities.

His most recent project in Sub-Saharan Africa lasted three years. During this time he worked mostly from Newcastle University. But took four trips to the area, each lasting about a week.

“This isn’t about people, like me or Practical Action, coming in and bringing everything with us. There’s a lot more interaction than that,” concludes Neal.

“Capacity building is about improving the knowledge of people, so they can work with these systems in their own communities.”