A Smart Grid Solution to Prevent Brownouts in Bhutan

P3 Gridshare Awardees

The Phase I project team displays the Phase II funding award. l to r Kyle Palmer, James Apple, Meg Harper, Chhimi Dorji, Jenny Tracy, Joey Hiller, faculty advisor Dr. Arne Jacobson, James Robinson, and Nathan Chase.

Students from SERC and the Renewable Energy Student Union (RESU) won a $75,000 EPA grant to implement a Smart Grid device to reduce brownouts on village-scale electrical grids in developing countries. We developed the device, known as GridShare, with support from the EPA’s People, Prosperity, and the Planet (P3) program. In April, we demonstrated GridShare technology at the National Sustainable Design Expo in Washington, D.C. and we were among fourteen teams to receive P3 Phase Two funding. During the next year, we will travel to Bhutan to implement GridShare technology in the remote village of Rukubji.

The objective of the project is to reduce brownouts on village- scale electrical grids, many of which are powered renewably with hydroelectric generators. Hydropower produces plenty of electricity during most of the day, but local electrical grids become overburdened during the evening hours when residents cook meals with electric rice cookers and water boilers. The excessive demand causes a brownout, a drop in electrical grid voltage, nearly every evening. Brownouts result in dim lights, slower cooking, and difficulty using sensitive appliances.

Brownouts could be prevented in several ways. Utility companies could install new power plants or energy storage systems to meet peak electricity demands during evening hours. However, energy generation and storage are too expensive for most rural villages. Power plants also cause environmental damage, especially if they rely on fossil fuels. A more affordable and environmentally-friendly option is to encourage residents to use their appliances earlier in the day, a concept known as “load shifting.”

RESU developed GridShare technology to encourage load shifting. A GridShare will be installed along with the circuit breaker box on the side of every house, and indicator lights will be installed inside each house. GridShares encourage load shifting in two ways: by indicating the state of the grid and by preventing residents from using large appliances during brownouts.    When voltage on the grid is sufficient, an LED indicator shows a green light, and any appliance may be used. During a brownout, the indicator shows a red light, and power consumption is limited to 400 watts (sufficient for small appliances but too low for rice cookers or water boilers).    Over time, residents will learn about their grid by watching the indicator lights, and the automatic power-limiting mode will encourage residents to use their appliances during non-brownout times.

Gridshare Consultation in Rukubji

Residents of Rukubji meet with representatives from HSU, the Department of Energy of Bhutan, and the Bhutan Power Corporation to discuss methods of reducing brownouts.

This July, Chhimi Dorji, Meg Harper, and I will travel to Bhutan to survey residents and install the first GridShare prototypes in Rukubji, with the support of the Bhutan Power Corporation and the Department of Energy of Bhutan. We hope to learn more about the village electrical grid and gain input from residents regarding our approach to brownout reduction. In December, a second SERC/RESU team will visit Rukubji to install GridShares throughout the village. If the installation is successful, Rukubji may be the first of many villages to see the benefits of a more stable electrical grid.