Wits University energy innovation may alleviate load-shedding woes
Load-shedding can be a nightmare for anyone connected to the country’s electricity grid, and for many South Africans solar power is not really an option given its high price tag. But a new solar-power innovation by Wits University promises to bridge this gap and offer South Africans energy freedom without breaking the bank.
The Smart Mini-Grid, which has been developed by the university’s start-up company PeCo Power, will not only provide essential power to homes that don’t have access to electricity, but will also be a source of additional energy for those needing it in their homes.
This week the university unveiled the power device, which comes in different bundles. The entry-level package PeCo Lite 50 can yield up to 190Wh (watt-hour) of solar energy and store up to 140Wh — enough to sustain a household at night — while another bundle, PeCo Lite 80, can yield up to 460Wh of solar energy a day. The starter bundle comes equipped with a wiring kit that contains three bright lights and a wall-mounted 12V DC voltage outlet.
“We don’t want to box customers into using bespoke appliances with their smart mini-grid. We believe in energy freedom and so we provide the customer with their own 12V DC outlet,” said Raees Dangor, business development manager at PeCo Power and a PhD candidate at Wits. “This gives the customer the freedom to choose what 12V DC appliances they want to connect to their smart mini-grid.” Dangor said the mini power grid had successfully powered lights, televisions, charged radios, cellphones and other USB appliances.
In 2019, PeCo Power was spun out of Wits University as an endeavour to commercialise an innovative smart mini-grid. The concept was conceived by the university’s school of electrical and information engineering as a solution to provide essential electrification to homes that don’t have access to electricity.
The product launch was initially planned for mid-2020 but was delayed by the Covid-19 hard lockdown. Despite this setback, the PeCo Power team was able to successfully complete a field study which saw the smart mini-grid tested and validated in a real-world environment. The team also used this time to industrialise the manufacturing and production processes in anticipation of the market launch, which will officially take place this month .
During the field study, PeCo Power showcased and deployed systems at several sites in Gauteng, KwaZulu-Natal, the Western Cape, Eastern Cape and the Free State. A system was also shipped to Germany for testing. There were zero technical failures, confirming the technology’s market readiness.
The smart mini-grid was developed and refined over the past four years by a team of innovators, headed up by Prof Willie Cronje. It has the potential for wide and meaningful socio-economic impact in rural and marginalised communities that don’t have access to electricity.
The mini grid, which won the Wits University vice-chancellor’s award for innovation in 2020, is designed to be affordable for low-income households and robust enough to survive demanding settings. It is expandable, “which means that households can start small and grow their system over time, without losing the value of their initial investment”. It can also be configured for a number of different applications. Being a true plug-and-play solution, no technical expertise is required for installation, operation or maintenance. As the smart mini-grid operates on 12V DC, it poses no risk of electrocution and is considered safe.
According to Cronje, who is the head of the future electrical engineering technology research group at the School of Electrical and Information Engineering, the system is flexible and modular, allowing households to build and customise their grid over time, according to their energy needs and budget.
“Think of the system as being built with Lego blocks. We offer the user a range of smart solar blocks and smart storage blocks with which the customer may build their smart mini-grid. The maximum usable power of the grid can be increased by adding additional smart blocks in a plug-and-play manner. This means that households can start with a few smart blocks and then build onto it, block by block. This bottom-up, modular and expandable approach to electrification is what sets PeCo Power apart from traditional solar home systems,” said Cronje.
They device is expected to be available soon directly from retailers and distributors across SA.