ESCO Box: Smart monitoring, billing and control for pro-poor access to energy services
This project is developing and testing a device for remote monitoring, billing and control of energy “mini-grids” that are supplied by renewable energy such as solar, wind, micro-hydro and biogas – as well as fossil fuel generators. The device – called the ESCoBox – will enable local agents to act as small Energy Service Companies (ESCos). These will be able to buy power wholesale from larger generators, such as those used by mobile phone masts, or set up smaller stand-alone systems.
The ESCoBox will monitor and gather real-time data on energy availability from renewables and user behaviour on each mini-grid, allowing efficient management of the balance of supply and demand at all times. This ensures reliability of energy supply, lower cost and longer system life. Importantly, it will also allow the mini-grid to be easily expanded as demand increases, and will allow cashless billing over the mobile phone network.
Two key aspects of ESCoBox make it powerful tool:
1. It is a ‘smart’ control and monitoring system that optimises the operation of energy networks at various scales and levels of autonomy (e.g. off-grid or grid-connected) to ensure reliability of energy supply, lower cost and longer system life.
2. It includes a Decision Support Tool (DST) for use by the micro-grid operator to develop effective control strategies, pricing structures and system upgrade pathways.
Analysis of the needs of mini-/micro-grid operators and their customers indicates that the systems can perform more efficiently, reliably and cheaply if certain loads can be incentivised to run at specific times of the day or year. The DST helps the system manager to decide when, and at what price, to offer discounted time-slots, especially to larger loads, in order to achieve this. The relevant circuits are switched on at the allocated times by ESCoBox’s remote control units. This can integrate with other system design, control and management packages, such as the cloud-based management and cashless payment system developed by project partners SteamaCo.
The DST is underpinned by monitoring of demand patterns and battery health, which is so critical to the reliability, longevity and economic viability of off-grid electrical networks. Of the many smart grid techniques considered for this project, the timeslot allocation method was the simplest and most effective at achieving optimisation of both technical and economic performance.
The Decision Support Tool (DST) has been developed and an initial release is available on the project website. To maximise accessibility to system operators, it is designed to run in Microsoft Excel. A full explanation of the concept and modelling approach can be found in our paper at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0973082615001040.