UB engineer helping make smarter, more equitable solar-powered microgrids

Solar panels with the sun setting behind them.

By Melvin Bankhead III

Release Date: April 29, 2022

John Hall.

John Hall

“How do you prioritize the different electrical needs (when the area lacks) the resources to generate electricity? ”
John Hall, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering
University at Buffalo School of Engineering and Applied Sciences

BUFFALO, N.Y. – What’s the best way to ration solar-generated electricity in communities whose power supply wanes as the sun sets?

What new technologies can help customers who struggle to pay their home heating bills?

It’s these questions and more that University at Buffalo engineer John Hall and partners are addressing as they work to build smarter and more equitable energy delivery systems.

Hall, an assistant professor in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences’ Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, directs the Systems Realization Laboratory at UB.

Recently, he and a team of scientists – named The CyberBorgs – participated in the fifth round of the U.S. Department of Energy’s American-Made Solar Prize, which bills itself as a contest that aims to “energize U.S. solar innovation” and develop “a diverse and powerful support network that leverages national laboratories, energy incubators, and other resources across the country.”

The team was among 20 selected as semifinalists, and it won the justice, equity, diversity and inclusion (JEDI) category, which focused on projects that can provide innovative solutions to disadvantaged communities.

In addition to Hall, team members include:

  • Claudia Maldonado, founder and CEO of Atrevida Science, a UB spinoff company commercializing renewable energy research out of UB;
  • Farrokh Mistree, professor at the University of Oklahoma’s School of Aerospace and Mechanical Engineering;
  • Janet K. Allen, professor at the University of Oklahoma’s School of Industrial and Systems Engineering;
  • Ashok Das, founder and CEO of SunMoksha Clean Energy in India;
  • Ayushi Sharma, a SunMoksha research engineer;
  • Sarbojit Mukherjee, founder and architect of Baanda Inc.

The team’s contest entry, a “cyber-physical-social digital platform,” is capable of managing microgrids to supply electricity to urban and rural communities.

Maldonado says the platform “enables communities to schedule (power) loads based on their needs and budget.”

“We merge the real and digital worlds and incorporate quality-of-life modeling,” she says.

“A grid is what’s used to deliver power,” says Hall, who also serves as Atrevida’s science advisor. “A microgrid would be like a smaller version of that. Microgrids enable a local smart gird, and that’s where some of this work started at. One of the other companies that’s involved with this is called SunMoksha. A lot of their work is really the motivation for this. They started in India, and I’ve been working with them for about five years now.”

Power grids, solar-powered grids, and microgrids have their differences. In the U.S., Hall notes, with full-sized power grids, you can “plug something in at any time of the day and have electricity.” The downside is that “at any given moment, the amount of electricity that’s being used in a grid system has to be equivalent to the amount that’s being pushed into it, because grids typically don’t have any storage capacity,” he says.

In contrast, Hall says, for rural villages in developing countries “standalone, solar-powered grids, only produce power as long as there is sunlight. There are batteries, but these will run out of power during the night or even during the day when the demand is high.”

“So, (in parts of India), people there don’t have electricity at all times of the day, so we came up with a way that it would be rationed out,” Hall said. “How do you prioritize the different electrical needs (when the area lacks) the resources to generate electricity? If you come up with a good way to ration electricity, and it’s based on what people’s needs are, what we call standard of living or quality of life. If you can understand what appliances folks use the most that improve their standard of living, then basically we try to ration it out in that fashion.”

In the U.S., Hall notes, unlike in India, the problem with access to electricity is often not a lack of resources with which to generate it. Instead, depending on the provider and the economic status of the intended customers, the power bill may be too expensive.

“If someone can’t afford the electrical bill, how do you work with that?” he says. “How do you help them with that (issue)? So, that’s the much larger, overarching problem that I’m looking to tackle. The solar microgrid is basically sort of a small-scale version of that.”

The ideal solar microgrid, Hall says, wouldn’t be a standalone grid. Instead, it would be “connected to the main grid, but it would have smart features … where you would be able to prioritize different loads based on improving the standard of living. Instead of being based on limited power, it would be based on limited (financial resources),” he says.

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