Solar Powered Buggies -Irish Innovation
yda Esfandyari, a PhD student in Engineering at DIT, is designing a charging station for solar powered buggies on the Dublin Institute of Technology campus.
Finding sustainable alternatives to fossil fuels, reducing greenhouse emissions and producing new forms of home-grown energy are all on the national agenda in Ireland and beyond.
Ayda Esfandyari is determined to help meet some of these targets. Her enthusiasm for finding renewable energy sources is infectious. Originally from Iran, Ayda has been living in Ireland since her teen years. She became interested in renewable energy while studying for her Master’s in Energy Engineering at University College Dublin. In 2014, she jumped at the opportunity to do a doctorate in Energy at DIT under the supervision of Professor Brian Norton, President of DIT and a specialist in solar energy.
Ayda is working on designing a Photovoltaic (PV) solar charging station for battery electric vehicles. The charging station currently powers two light-weight electric vehicles, which are used daily by the Estates staff in Grangegorman for a variety of tasks: to transport goods from building to building, to patrol the campus at night, to respond to accidents quickly. With 1200 students and 200 staff on a campus spanning 73 acres and bustling with events, conferences and day-to-day educational activities, the buggies are in constant use.
The past three years have been successively the hottest on record since modern record-keeping began in 1880, according to NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Fossil fuels such as coal, gas and oil provide more than 80% of the world’s energy. There is a general consensus among the scientific community that to stop global warming and reduce emissions, we need to transform our energy systems by using more low-carbon sources such as wind, solar, geothermal.
“Battery Electric Vehicles (BEVs) have been recognised as the ideal solution for lowering the CO2 emissions in the transport sector and helping to achieve a sustainable future," says Ayda.
EU and government policies around solar energy are moving towards the idea of ‘self-consumption,’ encouraging individuals and businesses to generate solar energy to meet the demands of their own electricity and heating needs.
To increase the level of self-consumption, DIT purchased a cutting-edge Battery Energy Storage System (BESS) as part of the charging station design.
“This is where Europe is going," explains Ayda. “This is where the targets are pushing towards. We generate the solar energy from the panels and store it in an optimal manner in this unit and then we use that energy when we need it. We have periods where there is less demand so we’re over-generating, or my storage is full because it’s been a very sunny day, and then we feed that energy into other buildings on campus. The energy never goes to waste."
The energy demand for the buggies is served by a combination of direct solar energy, the PV stored solar energy from the BESS unit, and energy from the main electricity grid. In order to prioritise the optimal energy flow, an Energy Manager device and a Battery Energy Manager is incorporated into the system. The goal is to utilise the solar-generated electricity as much as possible and switch back to the main grid as little as possible.
Ayda hopes that this charging station will help fulfil some of the national and international targets for renewable energy. “This charging station has zero emissions on the solar generation side and the electric vehicles have nearly zero emissions on the demand side. That’s amazing. If you look back fifteen years, these panels were very expensive, but now they’re more affordable. The price of electricity that you purchase from the grid is going up each year. It makes sense to deploy these panels."
The testbed of PV solar panels for the vehicles, installed on one of the rooftop buildings in DIT Grangegorman
The project has a lot of scope for development. Ayda is working on optimising the charging station and solar generation as much as possible with a view to adapting the prototype to different contexts. The plan is to add more buggies to the system in the future, and to use the charging station for electric bikes, so that students and staff can park and charge. The charging station could also be used in commercial companies or in developing countries.
“A lot of people in developing countries are depending on a charging point for mobile phones and electronic goods. They experience many day-to-day issues with faults and system unreliability. We are working on finding the best way to operate a system like this in a cost effective manner."
This project is the future. Tesla, the world leader in electric cars, has vehicles on the road in 30 countries at the time of writing and aims to migrate the entire automobile industry to sustainable energy. People can charge up their Tesla car batteries for less than €10 using a plug at home, or for free at a public supercharging station.
In the United States, big companies such as Walmart, Target, Costco and Apple now have large rooftop solar installations to help power their buildings. PV solar power is also on the rise in Ireland. In 2017, Electric Ireland became the first energy supplier to provide solar power in the Irish residential market, offering customers the option to install PV panels in their homes.
DIT is working hard to make the Grangegorman campus as sustainable as possible. “Green thinking permeates the planning of the whole campus," says Professor Brian Norton, President of DIT.
Along with the creation of solar electrical energy, the Institute also has solar water heating in the Greenway Hub, the first newly built facility on campus. They plan to include solar panels on all new buildings for generating electricity and heat. The buildings are designed to be naturally ventilated and make optimal use of natural light, so that less electric lighting is needed. DIT is dedicated to sustainable transport. Grangegorman is a city campus, which is serviced well by public transport, including the new Luas line, Dublin bus, and there are new Dublin Bike stations on the way.
Ayda’s research falls under the aegis of the Dublin Energy Lab (DEL), an interdisciplinary research centre at DIT that is one of the leader’s in science and engineering energy research in Ireland.
Professor Aidan Duffy, Manager of DEL, explains: “Energy is one of those areas that is fundamental to every aspect of our daily lives. Dublin Energy Lab has people working in the areas of economics, business, physics, water, architecture, from all the fields of engineering. We’re using the combined strength of 90 researchers from across DIT to make an impact in the areas of electrical power, solar energy, energy policy, zero emissions buildings, lighting."
It's a team effort, says Ayda. "Dr Sarah McCormack, Associate Professor in Civil and Structural Engineering at TCD and Professor Michael Conlon, Head of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at DIT are also supervising the project. Paul Mc Dunphy and Terry Maher (Estates Manager, Structural Engineer) on the Estates team have been amazingly supportive."
Ayda is grateful for the opportunities she has been given to collaborate with researchers in DEL and to study at DIT, a college she feels is “so open to new horizons, new technologies and new approaches."
“Research gives me a pulse, it challenges me, it makes me feel alive. I feel like I’m young and I’m contributing to finding renewable energy sources and hopefully making the world a better place. That’s everyone’s dream, isn’t it?"