Coronavirus did not stop the Fusion Grid project – solar power system installed remotely in Africa

The Fusion Grid project provides electricity, internet connectivity and digital services to rural communities in developing countries. Its power system was updated on a pilot site in Namibia under LUT's remote supervision because the coronavirus prevented travel to the location.

An off-grid solar power and internet system could revolutionise the lives of billions of people living in poverty. Electricity could improve living conditions, and access to the internet and digital services enable, for instance, education and small-scale entrepreneurship.

In December 2019, the Fusion Grid project provided five houses in the village of Oniipa in Namibia with electricity and internet connectivity through a solar power and energy storage system. LUT's Post-doctoral Researcher Antti Pinomaa, who took part in the commissioning of the system networks on-site, says that the initial solution was temporary, as all of the necessary components could not be delivered.

Pinomaa says he will never forget how the people reacted when the system was switched on for the first time. Electricity enabled indoor lighting, charging smart devices and phones, using fans and listening to music. People were also very happy about having internet.

The changes gave a boost to business.

"Micro-entrepreneurs, such as a table manufacturer and a maker of ornaments, had taken their work to wherever electricity was available. Their work became easier when electricity enabled working from home daily. The internet connectivity even inspired new business plans," Pinomaa relates.

Corona hindered development in the field but enabled a new approach

In March 2020, the solar power system was updated and its energy capacity doubled – despite the coronavirus outbreak. The components that were initially ordered had finally arrived in Windhoek and were transported to the pilot site in Oniipa.

Due to the spread of the coronavirus, Pinomaa and the rest of the research group had to cancel their trip to Namibia, but the other leader of Fusion Grid, Aalto University's Professor Marko Nieminen, took charge of the installation and updating of the system. He was already in Africa at the time.

"Despite his optimistic disposition and the 1400 kilometres he drove in one day, even Nieminen had to surrender in the face of the coronavirus restrictions and return to Finland. However, he managed to deliver the devices and components to the pilot site before he left," Pinomaa says.

The new solar power installation in Oniipa was set up by a local electrician and a resident. Pinomaa supervised the work through Skype from the Lappeenranta campus together with Doctoral Student Iurii Demidov.

"We were able to change the charge regulator inverter and battery for the electricity system, connect the solar panels and get the system up and running just before sunset. The main thing was for the lights to go on again in Oniipa, and the electricity distribution was not interrupted for even one night," Pinomaa beams.

The work at LUT's end continued into the night: system parameters needed to be adjusted online.

Now, the greater energy capacity of the batteries will provide enough electricity for current and forecasted needs in the near future. In addition, the project actors will be able to monitor and control real-time solar power generation, the charging of the batteries and the consumption of households.

"Real-time data on electricity consumption is also provided to the residents of the houses with a browser-based user interface developed in the project. Customers are steered towards smart electricity consumption," Pinomaa explains. 

Remote maintenance – the key to profitable technology export?

Off-grid solutions aiming for the improvement of living conditions in remote locations in developing countries often end up as toxic waste as soon as they malfunction, as there is little maintenance expertise locally and long-distance transportation for repair is costly. According to Pinomaa, sending people to install equipment has been an expense that has made off-grid, self-sufficient power systems unprofitable.

"We have now demonstrated, albeit for lack of options, that things can be done differently. In other words, something positive has come out of this outbreak," Antti Pinomaa says.

Remote supervision has potential also as a longer-term solution.

"We will continue to supervise and engage locals remotely and develop the concept to enable the setup and maintenance of equivalent, larger-scale systems. Technology-assisted, real-time work is possible when internet connections are stable and the parties involved are present both in the field and remotely," Pinomaa concludes.

More information:

Antti Pinomaa
Post-doctoral Researcher, LUT University
antti.pinomaa@lut.fi

tel. +358 40 833 7291

Marko Nieminen
Professor, Aalto University
marko.nieminen@aalto.fi

tel. +358 50 3684763

The development and testing of an off-grid electric and 4G LTE mobile network started in the Fusion Grid project at LUT University in Lappeenranta in the summer of 2018. The joint project of LUT, Aalto University, GreenEnergy Finland (GEF) and the University Properties of Finland has funding in the amount of 1.5 million euros from Business Finland and the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of Finland. Also Nokia was initially involved.

The final stage of the project aims to update the telecommunications network of the system by introducing a 4G LTE base station in Oniipa with project partner Edzcom in the lead. This will also enable expanding the current WiFi network.

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Fusion Grid introduces connectivity and electricity to homes in developing countries