IEEE Smart Village Launches SunBlazer IV and Smart PBK

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Posted On: 08.09.2019

– By Ray Larsen, Dan Estes

IEEE Smart Village (ISV) developed the first generation of SunBlazer in 2010 as a mobile generator and portable light kit (PBK) charger solution to bring power for basic lighting, cell phone charging and light appliances via PBKs to off-grid villages. Now, ten years and three design iterations later, ISV continues its innovative technology development with the new SunBlazer (SB-IV) and Smart PBK technology. These options are a more versatile technology option for the on-going mission to empower off-grid communities around the world. This fourth generation is lighter, more modular, rugged, easy to install as a complete manufactured unit and adaptable to a multitude of use-cases envisioned for community-scale solutions. The PBK has been totally redesigned to measure charging capacity and report to a cloud-based system. Its features are being adapted to PayGo metering for both DC and AC microgrids under a current development project. A third component of SB-IV is the simplified expandable solar panel A-Frame that extends peak power from the original 1.5KWp to a base system (Figure 1) of up to 3.7kWp, at the same time enabling further extensions of the A-Frame to arbitrarily large arrays. All components are stand-alone modules that are easily re-deployed by avoiding mounting of panels on the roofs of buildings.

The fourth and most critical element of the design was the business model. The primary goal of community empowerment requires a market-based model by which the community gains employment and ownership through the dedicated efforts of local entrepreneurs. It is estimated that this is 80% of the total challenge of a sustainable scalable enterprise.
History: The original charging station was conceived by Ray Larsen of IEEE and Wayne Gutschow, VP of Engineering of Nextek Power Systems. Wayne was volunteered by his boss Paul Savage, a member of the IEEE Community Solutions Initiative (CSI) team to execute the detailed design to professional commercial standards. Wayne in turn recruited a skilled volunteer team to help with production of what eventually became 15 SunBlazers with 80 PBKs each for 1200 homes. Designing the original SunBlazer as a mobile with foldable solar panels was the brainchild of John Lorts, neighbor of Ray Larsen and a member of the CSI volunteer team; and his wife Colleen who invented the name SunBlazer and bequeathed it to IEEE. The PBKs were charged every few days at the central solar power station and transported mostly by foot to the surrounding houses, providing basic lighting and low power charging for cell phones and radios.

Ray and the CSI TechCom oversaw the design of the technology and in 2011-12 Ray participated in operator training for the first few deployments in 15 villages in Haiti, 6 in June 2011 and 9 in August 2012. In both cases the technical team delivered the finished equipment with detailed instruction manuals in three languages to the Sirona Haiti Entrepreneur team of Michelle and Paul Lacourciere; then trained the selected local operators how to use the equipment while Sirona trained the same operators on the business aspects. This was a franchise model refined by Sirona where entrepreneurs took custody under contract of the SunBlazer and PBKs, found the customers and collected the funds monthly for an off-the-top payment to Sirona, who provided all maintenance and repairs or replacement and collected the operators’ payments each month. An in-country manager oversaw the business operation. The operator was incentivized to keep a full booking of PBKs to maximize his/her income.

“We are glad to make the new SunBlazer IV available to the entrepreneurs that we are enabling,” said Mr. Larsen. “It is a self-contained portable modular system designed for quick deployment at lower cost and higher security and ruggedness than the original SunBlazer in a trailer and more portable than the stationary SB-II and III designs.”

SunBlazer IV is easily scalable from small to large systems, from lighting up small community homes and schools through portable light kits (PBKs) on the one hand, to driving a microgrid for larger home and business loads such as water pumping, electric machine tools and street lighting on the other. Coupled with the new simpler stand-alone A-Frame solar panel mounting system than used in SBs II and III, multiple units can be ganged gauged for systems above the base system of 3.7kWp to 20kWp or more peak power, for example. These larger systems can simultaneously charge PBKs, electric vehicles and drive microgrids to deliver either DC or AC power to a whole range of uses. The modularity of all parts and independence from rooftop mounting makes the entire system quickly reconfigurable or movable for changing demands and conditions. The standardized design makes in-country manufacture much simpler, establishing suppliers near points of need is the next step currently underway.

The SunBlazer IV version is easy to ship, as it comes with all the control and battery wiring pre-installed in a hardened steel case that does not require external pallets. All internal parts, especially batteries, are anchored securely for transport. The A-Frame is easy to assemble, using a pre-fabricated drill jig to facilitate use of local, standard steel pipes for the assembly where the solar panels can be mounted.

The base unit key components include six, 300 watt solar panels that provide a controlled charge to two 200 Ah station batteries located in a steel, lockbox. Inside, eight charging stations, under the secure control of a Solar Charge Controller, simultaneously provide power to Portable Battery Kits. The 12V, 12 Ah LiFePO4 battery kits have a digitally encrypted key that can only be re-authenticated by being charged at the SunBlazer. In this way, clients cannot risk damage by trying to charge from a random non-SunBlazer charger.

The modularity of the base unit was designed so that it can house an optional 230V, 1500 watt AC output which allows a combination of AC and DC powered devices to be fed from the same SunBlazer. Small appliances, like refrigerators, sewing machines, or irrigation stations can be powered from the base unit platform via a micro-grid distribution system connection. By the same token, extended battery backup capacity can be added to SB-IV enclosures filled with additional batteries and simple combiners to feed a common load.

Note that for the largest systems, multiple SB-IVs can be connected in an array with an inverter connecting to a common AC grid including, if desired, a 3-phase connection to an existing grid, where backup advantages accrue to both utilities. Finally, ISV aims to document a catalog of all SB-IV based options for configuring off-the-shelf systems. Qualifying the first few manufacturers for in-country supply chains is now underway for completion in 2019.

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