Powering the energy needs of remote communities

Fossil fuel dependency may be one of the most pressing global challenges of our time, but for engineering researcher Dr Mark Walker the way to meet that challenge is to be found at the local level: on the ground with villagers in a remote corner of India.

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An expert in anaerobic digestion (AD), Dr Walker is part of a multinational, multidisciplinary team drawn from three UK universities and three Indian universities. He and his colleagues in Sheffield's Energy 2050 group are working with tribal people in West Bengal to develop a sustainable energy system based on energy from waste biomass and a novel solar photovoltaic technology.

"The technology has to be appropriate and practical, otherwise it won’t get used and it won’t bring about the improvements that we want to achieve," says Dr Walker, who is one of 120 researchers within the recently established Energy2050 initiative, which also supports the Grantham Centre for Sustainable Futures.

Funded jointly by the Research Councils UK (RCUK) and the Indian government, the BioCPV project is developing a new class of solar photovoltaic technologies – Concentrating Photovoltaic (CPV) which will be integrated with biomass and waste power generation and will include high efficiency hydrogen generation and storage.

"It will be the first ever such integrated system combining solar, biomass and hydrogen," says Dr Walker, who will be travelling out to the village later this year to start up the AD plant and bring power to a village that has never been on the grid.

"We do this by putting in a large dose of inoculum to start the process, and then we have to bring the plant slowly up to full power, from which point on it becomes self-sustaining," Dr Walker said.

This project, part of an India-UK research programme known as Bridging the Urban-Rural Divide, is aimed at connecting rural people to a localised power supply using an integrated technology they are trained to operate and maintain.

More than 400 million people in India currently have little or no electricity

Dr Mark Walker

"The villagers in this part of the world are already employed clearing local lakes and woodlands of weeds and other plant material. This, along with locally collected food waste, is perfect raw material for anaerobic digestion, a technology that is being increasingly used throughout India.

"Our challenge has been to make these systems more effective and efficient, and to integrate them into an electrical energy system,” he added. Achieving this involves process modelling so the system can be designed to cope with sudden changes in demand.

"In small energy operations fluctuations in demand can have a big impact. Our modelling and optimisation tools help us to better design the system to ensure it is flexible and responsive to the needs of local communities. The electricity will be used to satisfy the domestic needs of the villagers, but will also provide lighting for streets and communal areas, and power to a local medical centre and school."

Having developed the prototype, Mark and his team will soon be collecting data from the power plant to see how it can be refined, improved and rolled out to other rural communities across India.

"Our solution is designed specifically for this village, but we want to know how we can modify this in a way that allows us to use it across a much wider population. We are not just walking away from this project once the plant is installed. We will be monitoring it remotely to see how it performs, and using this information to improve the design for future use in other communities," he said.

One of the keys to the success of this project is the strong links between the UK researchers and their counterparts in India. "Without good local connections none of this would have been possible," says Dr Walker. “The connection between our Indian partners and the villagers, and their understanding of tribal customs and cultures, has enabled us to win the trust of the people and gain insights into what they really want and what they need.

"We could not have just walked in to the place and started work. A lot of work had gone on behind the scenes before we arrived that allowed our meeting with the villagers to take place. There is no way this project could work without the social science and local link.

"The project is breaking the traditional boundaries among the renewable energy systems, including CPV, biomass and hydrogen generation and storage. It is also advancing our understanding of how best to integrate CPV and biomass," he added.

An update to this news story is now availalbe here.