Stable power grids for Africa
How can we live more sustainably and shape the future on our planet together? This is what the sixth "European Sustainability Week" (ENW) was all about from September 20th to 26th. When it comes to sustainable living, science is also in demand. In a special on ENW, we present exciting research projects by Paderborn researchers every Tuesday that deal with a sustainability topic.
Researchers at the University of Paderborn are developing modern systems for uninterrupted power supply in rural regions of Africa - Intelligent "microgrids" integrate renewable energies and make an important contribution to regional development
Almost nine out of ten people worldwide have access to electricity today. Yet in the age of digitalization and artificial intelligence, 789 million people still live without electricity, according to recent figures from the United Nations. Almost 70 percent of them live in sub-Saharan Africa alone. This is hampering development: The lack of or unstable power supply is still a major obstacle to improving living conditions in remote regions of Africa.
In order to find a solution to the African energy supply problem, scientists from the University of Paderborn are working in an interdisciplinary team on a cross-national teaching, learning and research platform. "The concept of "energy access for all" is important if we want to provide sustainable development aid," says project coordinator Prof. Dr.-Ing. Stefan Krauter of the Faculty of Electrical Engineering, Computer Science and Mathematics. "Through intelligently controlled, local power grids based on renewable energy sources, we want to enable a practical and robust power supply. Especially in rural areas, this is a prerequisite for giving people there access to modern technologies and the Internet." The three-year project is being supported by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) with around 2.3 million euros. The project executing organization is Forschungszentrum Jülich GmbH.
The long-term goal of the African and German project partners is to enable the local people to use the collaboratively developed, energy concept independently and in the long term. To this end, the scientists are developing modern training programs through which they will pass on the necessary practical knowledge to regional specialists and educational institutions.
Development needs energy
Affordable, reliable and clean energy for all - this is one of the sustainable development goals of the United Nations. Prof. Dr.-Ing. Stefan Krauter, Chair of "Electrical Power Engineering - Sustainable Energy Concepts" at the University of Paderborn, is very familiar with the consequences of "energy poverty" and knows which areas are particularly affected: "The predominantly rural communities in East Africa still lack an uninterruptible energy supply today," Krauter explains, pointing out that this circumstance has a direct impact on the living conditions of local people. Not only individual households are affected, he says, but also schools and hospitals in particular. "No electricity means that schoolchildren can no longer study in the evenings, that people cannot run competitive businesses and that important medicines cannot be refrigerated," sums up the Paderborn scientist.
Local, sustainable and smart solutions
The aim of the recently launched international project is to open up new possibilities for the electrification of remote regions in East Africa. Krauter explains, "We are developing modern mini power grids. The idea is that small, separate power grids, known as microgrids, will each supply energy to a spatially limited area such as a neighborhood or a hospital complex." Each of these microgrids has its own energy sources and supply options, such as solar systems and local storage facilities. The advantage of such island grids: Because there is not a single large power plant delivering electricity to consumers, faults cannot spread through a large transmission network. Local grids therefore enable a stable, uninterrupted supply of energy. "Because even where electricity is actually available, there are always massive energy bottlenecks. Power outages regularly paralyze the supply of entire cities," says Krauter, describing the African energy dilemma. At a later stage, however, these microgrids could be integrated into the main grid of a city or region.
To manage all available resources as efficiently as possible and distribute electricity to where it is needed or can be stored, the power grid must be highly flexible. "Intelligent power grids," so-called "smart grids," also connect the various players in the energy system in terms of communication. The exchange of information within the grids makes it possible to dynamically control the flow of electricity and thus precisely coordinate generation, consumption and storage at any given time," explains the Paderborn electrical engineering professor. For example, energy from a photovoltaic system could be automatically distributed to the various end users via batteries as needed. For the future, the international project team plans to not only supply rural areas with electricity in this way, but also to significantly stabilize large national power grids.
Tailored to the needs and capacities of the East African society
To ensure that the local people can also use the new technologies permanently and independently, knowledge transfer forms a central component of the new project. African experts and educational institutions are to benefit directly from the technical solutions developed in Paderborn, but they are also to help ensure that these technologies are adapted to local conditions. Krauter's team is therefore developing training concepts that are open to local partners and users. For example, basic knowledge is to be taught in graduate programs and also in simple internships: "In our project, research and training are specifically geared to the needs of African societies instead of being aligned with the high-tech benchmarks of industrialized countries," Krauter emphasizes.
Interdisciplinary work for innovative approaches
In order to find future-oriented and sustainable solutions, both experienced researchers and young scientists from different disciplines as well as German and African institutions contribute their expertise to the project. In addition to scientists from the fields of "Power Electronics and Electric Drive Technology", "Sensor Technology" and "Didactics of Technology", cultural scientists and economists from the University of Paderborn are also working on the innovative solution for energy supply. Because it is not only technical aspects that are decisive for success, but also a tailor-made educational concept, emphasizes Paderborn educational scientist Prof. Dr. Christine Freitag: "Education for sustainable development" is our benchmark. This approach is designed to enable people to shape the future actively, responsibly and on their own responsibility. Together with our African partners, we therefore also take a look at the connections between education and gender, for example in questions of equal opportunities and conflict potential with regard to ecological, economic and social challenges."
The project also involves universities in South Africa, Uganda and Tanzania, as well as African power generation and energy supply companies as industrial partners, the ECOLOG Institute for Social-Ecological Research and Education, the Photovoltaic Institute Berlin and Asantys Systems. Even though the research focus is on East Africa, the approaches and results should be applicable worldwide in the future, Krauter emphasizes.
The University of Paderborn participates in the "European Sustainability Week" with various actions. Learn more at go.upb.de/enw2020 and #UPB4ausDenken.