Knowledge transfer between academia and industry has the potential to affect a lot of change for a small off-grid solar company like M-KOPA Solar, a Kenya-based company and 2015 recipient of the Zayed Future Energy Prize. This is why Harini Hewa Dewage joined M-KOPA Labs, the research branch of M-KOPA, in November of 2016 as its battery technology specialist.
She has been connecting academia to industry in the battery storage sector ever since.
Now Battery Research Lead for M-KOPA Labs, Dewage believes in the mission of M-KOPA: providing access to energy through high-quality solutions that are affordable for all. As of November 2018, M-KOPA has over 700,000 total households subscribing to their services. But while typical businesses or nonprofits working in the low-cost distributed solar industry focus on the potential for solar power to support lights, M-KOPA has worked to meet demand for larger appliances such as TVs or refrigerators.
“Coming from the western world, we have this idea that access to energy is being able to get lightbulbs and light,” explained Dewage. “And I think that’s a fantastic first move to be able to displace candles and kerosene for light, but I think where you see people’s quality of life really improve is with access to appliances and other services.”
At M-KOPA, Dewage believes in giving people not just access to lighting, but the full range of what energy can provide. She explained that a common assumption is that if you ask people what’s the first appliance they want, it would be a fridge or a washing machine. While those two appliances are important, however, the first appliance most people want is a TV.
But with larger appliances, it requires more battery understanding and development. And that is where things get tricky.
“Any problem you have on a smaller battery it might be magnified on a larger one by the sheer fact that you have more cells,” said Dewage. “But also new challenges will appear. For example, as your pack increases in size you might have to put in cooling systems, you might have to manage, you know, thermal radiance better within the pack.”
The lack of data richness in the off-grid solar industry means that Dewage is constantly asking how M-KOPA Labs can develop ways to bypass this lack of information. At M-KOPA Labs, one of the key missions is to identify new research opportunities by engaging with industrial and academic partners.
Last year, Dewage and her team worked on a project with Oxford University to develop battery algorithms to keep track of two metrics called the “state of health” and the “remaining useful life” of batteries. “State of health” is a sort of diagnosis on the current state of the battery, while “remaining useful life” focuses on predicting the future performance of the battery.
The development of these algorithms are common for more powerful industries, however, Dewage explains they are more challenging to develop for batteries within solar home systems that do not have the same richness of data. So, through the research in conjunction with Oxford University, the team came up with a first version solution for these algorithms based on the data collected from each of their devices in east Africa.
Now with the first version of these algorithms, Dewage and her team are working on their implementation at M-KOPA, which includes a process of automating data collection, running that data through the algorithms and taking the outputs. This allows M-KOPA to be able to determine if the battery supplies they are using will be able to meet the current and future needs of the appliances they are developing. This also has implications for Dewage’s current focus on collecting and recycling batteries in the field.
As M-KOPA works to expand its company, these algorithms are not the only exciting new progress. M-KOPA is hoping to enter new markets and provide more appliances, which comes with a set of challenges on their own.
One challenge Dewage faces is that the biggest driver behind lithium ion batteries is the electric vehicle market, with only so many top-tier battery suppliers. According to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, lithium-ion batteries comprise more than 90% of the global grid battery storage market. There are three tiers to the battery supplier pyramid, with tier one being top quality and tier three the lowest. And as the demand for lithium-ion batteries increases as the electric vehicle market expands, Dewage and her team are left working with tier-three suppliers. With any supplies from outside of tier one supplies, it is difficult to know what is good quality and what is not, Dewage explained.
“Right now when we come to approach the battery industry, we are at the bottom of the food chain,” said Dewage. “But as our industry grows, as a community we will have more and more power and our requirements and operating conditions will be understood better. Which also means we can demand from our suppliers better quality and reliability.”
Dewage finds the prospect of having more leverage in the energy storage space as the off-grid solar industry grows to be exciting. And she believes strongly that her work bringing academia to industry has the potential to grow and expand the off-grid solar industry.