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Wireless power web puzzle

Three billion people in the world live in energy poverty with unreliable or no access to electricity. Empowering them with energy to provide light, connectivity and clean water is a huge task.

Dr. Braham Ferreira, Chair of Power Electronics and Electrical Machines at the faculty of Electrical Engineering, Mathematics and Computer Science (EWI) believes there is a way of delivering a solution. "I have identified the pieces of a puzzle and it will take a major effort to put them together," he said.

The TU Delft PowerWeb platform, which he set up to research smart grids, invited him to give a lunch lecture on the topic on January 12, 2017. From his central position in 2015-16 as president of the Power Electronics Society within the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) he saw that many projects address the issue and funding is available, but that they are disconnected.

Ferreira presented an example of how locally generated solar energy and wireless cloud communication might empower a poor rural community. However, a known bottleneck to this bottom up approach is the administration, management and maintenance of large fleets of the efficient low cost solar panel, LED lighting and battery technologies.

But these potential infrastructures need to be scaled up and connected using cloud technology, ideally at zero cost. Frugal engineering principles need to be applied to improve the equipment's robustness while achieving consumer product prices, and the wireless system has to be sustainable over its whole life cycle. Once these communities have an energy source, the connectivity of the infrastructure will give them a strong economic motor for further development.

He is encouraged by the fall in the cost of wireless energy delivery using existing solar panels and batteries for storage allowing it to compete with the cheapest wired grids. Conventional centralised wired grids with limited coverage and reliability, high maintenance costs and problematic cultural acceptance have tended to be unsuccessful in poor countries.

Another promising factor is the growth in sales of companies of the Global Off-Grid Lighting Association (GOGLA), the industry association off-grid solar energy firms. The market for solar lanterns and small domestic systems in poor countries is flourishing.

Ferreira announced that IEEE will seed development of the concept by means of a competition called Light Up a Billion Smiles where teams will compete for a one million dollar prize by coming up with an innovative solution to the puzzle. He hopes TU Delft students will be motivated to team up with counterparts in India and Africa and take a crack at the challenge.

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