DMU academics showcase how electric vehicles and solar panels could work together to solve energy needs in rural communities

Researchers from De Montfort University Leicester (DMU) have shown electric taxis used in conjunction with solar-powered mini-grids could provide economic and environmental benefits to rural communities in the Global South.

The innovative research project led by DMU academics Dr Rupert Gammon and Dr Momodou Sallah investigated the feasibility of a solar-powered taxi service in The Gambia, Africa - and reported positive results that show benefits beyond transportation.

Gambia solar panel van external.WEB

The study – which was discussed as part of this year’s British Science Festival, hosted at DMU – saw researchers plug the electric vehicle, between trips, into a carport with solar panels on the roof.

These panels powered a stand-alone mini-grid by using one of the most abundant but under-exploited renewable energy sources, the sun.

 Mini-grids are electricity distribution networks that are not connected to a region’s ‘main’ grid, they are also viewed as a potentially economic and practical solution to electricity provision in areas that are harder to reach.

 One of the biggest challenges for any electricity network is that supply and demand must be constantly balanced to avoid equipment damage or grid failure. When a high proportion of generation is from variable renewable energy sources, like solar or wind power, this balancing act is more difficult.

 One way to manage this is to increase the demand when lots of renewable energy is available and reduce it at times of low solar or wind power, the academics found this is where electric vehicles can help.

Research shows, electric vehicles have a large on-board battery, they can store electricity produced at times of surplus renewable output for use in transportation, or maybe even putting it back into the grid during periods low renewable generation- this can be incentivised through variable electricity tariffs that make such recharging patterns cheaper than uncontrolled charging.

 Transportation is often a barrier to individuals’ economic development in rural areas, and therefore having vehicles with lower running costs- those relying on renewable energy rather than fossil fuels, would be advantageous.

Gambia solar panel van front.WEB

Dr Rupert Gammon, Senior Research Fellow at DMU’s Institute of Energy and Sustainable Development, said: “The findings of this study are really promising. As well as offering a more environmentally sustainable solution to growing energy demand in rural areas in the Global South, there are social benefits to its communities.

“The idea has since been taken up in Ghana where it is proving to be a successful commercial proposition, which shows us there is a real possibility of such projects making a huge difference to lives in Sub-Saharan Africa and other regions.”

The study also analysed the economic impact to drivers of the electric taxis, and estimated that a taxi driver’s earnings could potentially increase by 250 to 1,300% in local operations, and up to 20 times in tourist-heavy areas. These figures are dependent on the vehicle type, mini-grid configuration and types of passenger.

 The academics expanded on the vehicle types that could be explored as being the most suitable for this type of project in the future, suggesting;  lightweight vehicles, such as tuk-tuks (autorickshaws) and cargo bikes, would be most commercially feasible, with electric cars and minivans also showing promise commercially.

 Electric motorbikes are also a solid option, and uptake is already high in some regions of Sub-Saharan Africa.


Posted on Wednesday 21st September 2022

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