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Neel Tamhane: the idea of solar home systems to enable energy trade

Neel Tamhane: the idea of solar home systems to enable energy trade

Neel Tamhane is a solar energy innovator, work in India on designing new solutions to build a clean and affordable energy future for the world. He is the product manager of  “SPACE10”, a project that builds an interconnected mesh of the solar home systems to enable energy trade. The people can now buy energy when they need more and sell energy to their neighbours to make money from the sun as an added source of income. People can also choose to pool in their energy together to power bigger appliances that they couldn’t individually.

Where did the idea of  the project come from?
I have been working with energy access for about 5 years now. Energy infrastructure hasn’t evolved too much in the last decade or so. Also, traditional approaches adopted by the Global North are not enough to address the universal rural electrification in the Global South where still over 800 million people lack access to clean and affordable energy. Meanwhile, the cost of solar photovoltaics and batteries have fallen by about 7 times in the last decade. So, I worked with a few social enterprises and startups that were trying to work towards SDG7 with homegrown models that were tailored for the region. I worked with designing and deploying over 200 minigrids in India under a model that leverage powering a telecommunication tower to subsidize and supply electricity to microenterprises and households in the village. While working on this project I realised the true potential of decentralised systems. I did think that there was scope to go further though and build a system that works at a more local level. I then came across the ‘swarm electrification’ model and found about SOLshare, that was the first to build such a system in the world. I got talking to the founders and realized how and why they were in Bangladesh. It was simple, Bangladesh has the largest number of off-grid solar home systems in the world! It was a great starting ground to build a system bottom-up that allowed people to step up in the energy ladder by their own means and not depend on others.

Give us more detail about the project
The idea is simple. It leverages the power of the sharing economy just like Uber or AirBnB does around the world. The model piggybacks on existing assets to optimally utilise a resource. In the case of Uber it’s cars for SOLshare, it was energy. So, Bangladesh had over 5 million off-grid independent solar home systems that were bought by people through a lease-to-own model. Through a study, we found that up to 30% of the energy generated by the solar system can’t be stored in the battery due to size limitations. So, we thought of building an interconnected mesh of the solar home systems to enable energy trade. The people can now buy energy when they need more and sell energy to their neighbours to make money from the sun as an added source of income. People can also choose to pool in their energy together to power bigger appliances that they couldn’t individually.

How many years has it been going on?
SOLshare built the first grid in 2015. The technology and design of the grid have evolved ever since.
I have however moved to now lead solar energy research at SPACE10 where we are looking at enabling access to decentralized and democratized clean energy solutions.

The importance of solar energy today
It’s clear that solar energy is the only energy source that is modular, decentralized and easy to deploy at any scale.
The relevance of solar energy is only going to increase going forward. The main constraint with solar energy has been its intermittency which is likely to get better soon with a lot of research being done in the energy storage space. Solar and energy storage costs have already come down by over 7 times in the last decade. With the ability to decentralize and democratize energy systems globally, solar energy is going to have a considerable impact in helping the world achieve the 2030 UN SDG goals.
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