Research into Sharing Energy

From halfway November until halfway December a team of 4 designers traveled to Gaya, Bihar to research and design the next step in Rural Spark’s vision on energy grids in India.

In the last year we’ve been working hard on prototypes to store energy surpluses. Solar panels are not constantly used and a lot of the generated energy is not being used (instantly). There’s a huge potential in designing ways to trade these surpluses. The concept of ‘share cubes’ is translated into prototypes expanding our Spark Station with ‘battery packs’ we call share cubes. But, as many of the design challenges we face within Rural Spark, trade in energy requires figuring out how to fit the lives of the people in the villages.

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In the studio we developed two mayor scenarios based on research we did in Gaya in July 2014. In the Guraru area, where a pilot of ‘pre-paid’ customers is currently running, we developed a ‘home dock’. With this home dock, people can use the surpluses for a larger light bulb or to charge a mobile phone. This home dock increases the demand for energy. After the work in december, we now have 4 home docks in the field, one of them is running on the surpluses of the grid in the town Guraru, the other 3 are running in the villages on the surpluses of the Local Energy Suppliers.


Sustainable prototypes

The home docks were 3D printed for this research. We worked together with the dutch company Refil for this, they use 3D printer filament that’s fully made from recycled plastic products. Plastic waste makes energy research in India Possible

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Another scenario was validated in a pilot in Bankey Bazar. In this area around 90 entrepreneurs are already using the Rural Spark energy kit. Three of the entrepreneurs’ Spark Stations were replaced with the new Station and battery packs. The setup of the pilot was to work with a ‘Rural Spark exchange point’. At this point, local energy suppliers could sell their energy surpluses, or buy additional energy.

During the pilot, two schools started using a Rural Spark energy router to power a DC-television. When the first cubes where exchanged, slowly people started to tweak our system. The director of one of the schools found another solar panel closer to the school and started to have his share cubes charged by the person owning the solar panel. At the same time, the entrepreneur close to the other school started bringing her charged cubes directly to the school. This allows us to gain real insights in how the tools are being used and to what extend a system is emerging realising the intended goal.

Overall we learned that the share cubes are well understood and noticed it is most important to give people access to information; where is what available or needed. Furthermore we notice a high probability of development of different kind of entrepreneurs; the more actively selling kind of entrepreneur (making business) or the people who rather buy surpluses than actively being involved in the energy generation process.

In the upcoming months, Rural Spark will mainly focus on scaling up the ‘infrastructure’ for distributing energy products into the rural villages. Primarily the cubes will be sold as modular energy storage, allowing for flexible storage plans for our customers. However, we’re very confident that the cubes can, and will be used to share energy between entrepreneurs.

Based on our learning, the next steps into building the energy grids of tomorrow, seems to be based on providing more tools to the people in the villages who actually build this network. The cubes, which make it possible to transport energy around, have proven to have high potential in enabling this.

Both a team of students from the TU Delft in the Netherlands, as well as research leaded by two researchers at the TU in Eindhoven, The Netherlands, will continue this research in 2015.