UB engineer helps create smarter, fairer solar microgrids

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BUFFALO, NY – What’s the best way to ration solar-generated electricity in communities whose power supply dips at sunset?

What new technologies can help customers struggling to pay their home heating bills?

It’s these questions and more that University at Buffalo engineer John Hall and his partners are pondering as they work to build smarter, fairer power distribution systems. .

Hall, an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, directs the Systems Realization Lab at UB.

Recently, he and a team of scientists – named The CyberBorgs – entered the fifth round of the U.S. Department of Energy’s American-Made Solar Award, which bills itself as a competition to “energize American solar innovation” and develop “one and a powerful support network that leverages national labs, energy incubators and other resources across the country.

The team was among 20 selected semi-finalists and won the Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (JEDI) category, which focuses on projects that can bring innovative solutions to disadvantaged communities.

In addition to Hall, team members include:

  • Claudia Maldonado, Founder and CEO of Atrevida Science, a UB spin-off company commercializing renewable energy research from UB;
  • Farrokh Mistree, professor at the School of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering at the University of Oklahoma;
  • Janet K. Allen, professor at the School of Industrial and Systems Engineering at the University of Oklahoma;
  • Ashok Das, Founder and CEO of SunMoksha Clean Energy in India;
  • Ayushi Sharma, SunMoksha Research Engineer;
  • Sarbojit Mukherjee, founder and architect of Baanda Inc.

The team’s entry in the competition, a “digital cyber-physical-social platform”, is capable of running micro-grids to provide electricity to urban and rural communities.

Maldonado says the platform “allows communities to schedule (power) loads based on their needs and budget.”

“We merge the real and digital worlds and integrate quality of life modeling,” she says.

“A grid is what’s used to deliver power,” says Hall, who is also a scientific adviser to Atrevida. “A microgrid would be like a smaller version of that. Microgrids enable a local smart grid, and that’s where some of this work started. One of the other companies involved in this project is called SunMoksha. A lot of their work is really the motivation for that. They started in India and I’ve been working with them for about five years now.

Electric grids, solar grids and micro-grids have their differences. In the United States, Hall notes, with large electrical grids, you can “plug something in at any time of the day and have electricity.” The downside is that “at any time, the amount of electricity used in a grid system must be equivalent to the amount fed into it, because grids generally have no storage capacity,” he says.

In contrast, says Hall, for rural villages in developing countries, “stand-alone solar arrays only produce electricity as long as there is sunlight. There are batteries, but these discharge overnight or even during the day when demand is high. »

“So (in some parts of India) people there don’t have electricity at all times of the day, so we found a way to ration it,” Hall said. “How do you prioritize the different electrical needs (when the area lacks) the resources to produce electricity? If you find a good way to ration electricity, and it’s based on people’s needs, what we call standard of living or quality of life. If you can figure out what devices people are using the most that are improving their standard of living, we’re basically trying to ration them that way. »

In the United States, Hall notes, unlike India, the problem with access to electricity is often not a lack of resources to produce it. Instead, depending on the supplier and the economic status of the targeted customers, the electricity bill may be too expensive.

“If someone can’t afford the electricity bill, how do you deal with that?” he says. “How do you help them with this (problem)? So that’s the much larger and overriding problem that I’m looking to solve. The solar microgrid is basically a kind of small-scale version of that. »

The ideal solar microgrid, says Hall, would not be a stand-alone grid. Instead, it would be “mainnet-connected, but it would have smart features… where you could prioritize different loads based on improved living standards. Instead of being based on limited power, it would be based on limited (financial) resources,” he says.

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