Vaal University of Technology’s research aims to provide electricity for deprived communities

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The Vaal University of Technology’s (VUT’s) Centre for Alternative Energy is undertaking research to provide a viable solution for the provision of electricity to rural and informal communities that do not have access to the national electricity grid.

“Communities of this nature suffer considerable deprivation, without even the most basic form of lighting, making it difficult for schoolchildren to study at night. Candles and other high risk sources of lighting have to suffice, and pervasive darkness heightens security risks. Availability of electricity and internet connectivity also open exciting prospects for improving education and healthcare in remote, rural areas in South Africa and across the continent”, explained Professor Christo Pienaar, Vaal University of Technology’s Director of Institute for Applied Electronics.

Initial research at VUT has shown that power plants based on solar powered hydrogen generation and a fuel cell, providing less than 10kW of power to run light-emitting diode (LED) lighting, may well provide the solution to the problem. During the day, solar generated electricity will produce hydrogen, which will be stored in a low pressure tank. During the night, and at times when there is little solar radiation, the stored hydrogen will be used to power a fuel cell. This process will generate heat for electrical generation and water, which will be re-used for the production of hydrogen.

About 80 percent of South African homes have grid-based electricity, leaving approximately one million homes that could benefit from such a system. The potential in the rest of Africa is enormous as in many countries only about five percent of homes are connected to the grid.

On average, six homes would be connected to each power plant. Consequently, if 25 percent of the homes needing electricity were to use this system, about 42 000 power plants would be required. The job creating potential is considerable. Each power plant would require site construction, followed by the electrical installations. In addition, ongoing maintenance of the systems and regular cleaning of the photo voltaic (PV) panels is essential, providing further employment. These jobs would be provided where they are most needed: in rural areas and needy communities.

Other potential small business and job creation opportunities lie in local assembly of power plants with a medium-term likelihood of local manufacture of PV products and low pressure hydrogen tanks.

The solar-LED solution proposed by VUT, in partnership with Telkom, will be able to compete against low-cost Chinese imports because of power plants being shared by several homes or users. Some mobile operators are already using fuel cells for powering mobile base stations and, consequently, Telkom will need to deploy fuel cell power plants. Telkom has already started to train people at a postgraduate level to specify, test and integrate such solutions.

VUT-trained postgraduate engineers have been deployed by M-Tec to gather data in countries such as Nigeria, the DRC and Uganda to research the electricity and telecommunications demands of urban and rural communities, as well as the requirements for fibre optic and electrical cable.

“The economically viable provision of electrical power to rural and deprived areas is probably the single most important catalyst for empowerment and upliftment through improved education, healthcare and employment”, said Professor Pienaar.

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