Fusion Grid introduces connectivity and electricity to homes in developing countries

Picture it: Namibia in 2030. Every dwelling has a functioning refrigerator and a power source for charging mobile phones and computers. The roof of each dwelling holds a solar panel and battery – schools and hospitals have several. A base station slightly larger than a shoebox is mounted on the wall or on a pole roughly three meters above the ground.

The panels, batteries and base station are part of an autonomous energy system. It offers an electric grid and 4G LTE connectivity in one package to residents of developing countries. LUT University, Aalto University, Nokia, GreenEnergy Finland (GEF) and the University Properties of Finland (SYK) are collaboratively developing such a system in the Fusion Grid project funded by the BEAM programme of Business Finland.

"Microgrids have been created before, but now we are creating an electric grid and mobile communication network from scratch in locations without a main grid," explains Post-doctoral Researcher Antti Pinomaa, LUT University.

In the future, the system could transform the lives of billions of people. Electricity would help to meet basic needs related to food. Internet connectivity would enable for instance setting up an online crafts store and digital learning environments for schools.

Customer version manufactured at LUT

The pilot version was set up for testing in Lappeenranta, Finland, in summer 2018. LUT University's Green Campus solar panels were used as the panels of the system, GEF supplied the batteries and Nokia the LTE 4G Kuha base station.

"During the summer, we designed an energy supply solution for customers as a student project. The solution consists of two solar panels and two batteries. A refrigerator, fan, 4G LTE terminal device, Raspberry Pi (single circuit board computer) and display were connected to the customer system," Pinomaa elaborates.

Automatic energy management was incorporated into the system. It measures the yield of the solar panels and the charge of the batteries. The system regulates the customer's electricity consumption loads: the refrigerator and base station connection remain functioning, but other loads are disconnected as needed.

"We scaled the panels and batteries to the anticipated power need of the customer. We took the reserve capacity into account for cases when the sun does not shine for two days. On the other hand, conditions in Namibia, for example, differ completely from those in Finland and are more favourable for solar energy generation; the annual number of sunny days there amounts to at least 300."

The energy system of the base station is scaled similarly.

Addressing development challenges by conducting business

The project will continue to cultivate the system into something resembling a consumer product. The system is meant to operate both autonomously and connected to other units. In the latter case, the units – the energy systems of the base station and the customer site – compose a distributed energy off-grid microgrid disconnected from the main grid.

"The aim is for customers to have their own solar panel systems that connect to the base station of the local village. A wider, smart off-grid microgrid would distribute electricity to meet a small community's needs," points out Pinomaa.

The concept will be developed at the Namibia University of Science and Technology (NUST) in collaboration with local researchers and students. The objective is to build a proof-of-concept pilot of the base station energy station on the NUST campus and to look into possibilities for piloting the concept in Namibia, for instance in a suitable area in the Namibian capital Windhoek in spring 2019.

The University Properties of Finland and Visio247 will explore possibilities to pilot the concept in The Gambia with the collaboration of the local Ministry of Higher Education, Research, Science and Technology (MOHERST) and the University of The Gambia (UTG).

The ultimate goal of the project is to pilot the Fusion Grid in actual use in rural areas of Namibia, The Gambia, or both during the year 2019.

We are creating an electric grid and mobile communication network from scratch in locations without a main grid - Antti Pinomaa

"The Ministry of Information, Communication and Technology and the Ministry of Mines and Energy in Namibia have embraced the idea. They consider the Fusion Grid an interesting concept and project," says Antti Pinomaa.

After experience has been gathered in the field and after subsequent development work, solar panels and a mobile network may become household products in all of the Sub-Saharan Africa.

Fusion Grid facts

  • 1.5 million in funding from Business Finland and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Finland. Part of the BEAM programme.
  • Project period: 1 January 2018–30 June 2020. Project partners: Nokia, GreenEnergy Finland, University Properties of Finland, Nordkapp, Aalto University and LUT University.
  • The autonomous off-grid microgrid is based on renewable energy, energy storages and distributed generation. It may be a conventional alternating-current network or a direct-current network.
  • The basic element of the telecommunications network is a 4G LTE base station powered by solar power and electricity stored from it, securing round-the-clock operation.
  • The single-unit system operates in an extra-low voltage range: 24–48 VDC.
  • If electricity is distributed from the energy station to customers, the distances require a low voltage of 230/400 VAC or 350 VDC. A modular, scalable version can meet the electricity needs of a larger community. Rural areas face challenges such as costs and extending the service range to the farthest customer in the village. Supply is not possible or cost-efficient overall from a single point to distant locations.
  • Distributed generation and storage at more than one point of the grid would be more profitable and feasible. This requires applicable energy market models where electricity can be sold and purchased in a controlled manner. A grid control system is implemented through the system's own wireless 4G LTE network. LUT conducts research on the scaling and control of the grid and on applicable microgrid market models.

Challenges:

  • The components of a system targeted for developing countries must be low-cost but of a sufficient quality.
  • Earning logic. How can the advantages of the energy system exceed the investments required in low-income countries? Research on applicable business and market models.
  • Restrictions of and legislation on local electricity markets.
  • Frequencies dictated by local communications authorities.
  • Batteries need cooling in the sunny desert as well as in hot, densely populated urban areas.

Opportunities:

  • Finnish education export and jointly developed learning environments to Namibia. In-Learn, the subproject of the University Properties of Finland (SYK), supports the education export of customer universities to developing countries. The subproject is carried out in cooperation with the University of Turku and with architecture and education export enterprises. The aim is to develop learning environments collaboratively to support active learning and cooperation between universities and businesses. Stronger networks bring added value to the Fusion Grid project.

 

More information:

The Fusion Grid Research Project -pdf

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

Marko Nieminen
Professor of Usability and User Interfaces, Aalto University
marko.nieminen@aalto.fi

Martti Ylikoski
Team Leader, Nokia
martti.ylikoski@nokia.com

Markus Huomo
R&D Project Manager, GreenEnergy Finland Oy
markus.huomo@gef.fi

Olli Niemi
Docent, University Properties of Finland
olli.niemi@syk.fi

 

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