Saturday, July 18, 2015

Adopting the Sun-Going Green

Sometime back, I told you about an ongoing project at my home, a plan to install a few solar panels at the rooftop of my house. The plan was conceived around more than five years ago, and now it appears to have become a Five-Year Plan, considering the long term idea, planning and research in executing it on the ground. Appears as if I have finally reached a stage where I could try working on executing the plan, finally. Since I am from Humanities background (did my Graduation and Post Grad in Geography, since I was too fond of the subject). Studying the Earth and its atmosphere, while in my graduation days, I realized that the immense amount of energy the sun gives us is getting wasted. Did you know that the amount of sun's energy that reaches the earth's surface is around 1000 Watts per square meter. Yes, 1 kW per square meter. That is at any given point of time, if the sky is clear, the earth's surface receives 1 kilowatts of energy on a spot 1 metre long by 1 metre wide. We are getting so much of energy, for free, and at close to zero cost, one which is relatively much safer and cleaner than our conventional sources of energy (electricity), and we still have so less that we face powercuts and load shedding on a regular basis, not to mention the many parts of the country which still have no access to electricity?

I have almost no theoretical knowledge of electronics, and anything related to engineering. So, I had to do indulge into a lot of research before even thinking about the type of system I need to have. Moreover, since I am not planning to get any expert professional help, as far as design and implementation of this project is concerned, except some help in working on the metallic parts, tracker, frames and such, which, I can't work on myself without having the required tools.Though, over time I have gathered a lot of the tools, but welding cutting and grinding machines are something I don't see a need for, not to say they will be way too expensive. There were a lot of hindrances, biggest being the costs involved. Initial estimates into the cost of the project had me really worried. The costs were a bit too much for me to get an approval for it. The initial estimates suggested that the project would cost upwards of Rs. 1 Lakh. So, I dropped the plan for a while, to proceed with researching on the project, what all would I need, and how things would go on. Above all the hindrances, the hardest was to get my mother onboard, as she is the only person who could derail the plan. Afterall, she cares for our futures, and for something she feels wrong or unnecessary, she won't ever give an approval for.

So, everything aside, research started. I dived deep into the internet in search of the best possible technologies that could help me minimize the project costs and achieve the results I ever wanted. It was during this search over the internet that I found internet to be a very useful things. Although, here in India, which is still considered a third world country, we do not have all the facilities. However the research paid off. In the meantime, I worked on making an environment suitable enough for me to get the approval from other members. I easily got my brother on board, and getting my father onboard too wasn't much of an issue. The real issue was with my mother, since all she saw and cared for was the costs involved.

Over time, both me and my brother looked for options, and he was the one who came up with the idea of a programmable microcontroller board that could be used in the project. We decided that in order to cut down the costs, and to have a decent small start, we would design an upscalable system, that will initially be started with a small capacity and once it starts working properly, we will gradually upscale it to increase its capacity. A lot of the work was done by my brother, who is better than me in a lot of things, including his knowledge of electronics and circuits, programming. He wrote the basic code for the microcontroller. We decided on the basic hardware we needed, electronics, including the microcontroller platform called Arduino. We decided that we will build an autonomous system that would need the minimum human interference, and would work at its optimum capacity. The plan was to build a Solar Power System for usage at my home. The system would work in tandem with the Utility power (AC Mains) that we get from the power distribution company. Such a system is often called a Hybrid System. In order to increase the efficiency, the system was planned to be a Sun tracked, one which would actively monitor the location of the sun and would align the panels in the best position possible to maximize the outputs from the panel, irrespective of the time of the day and the location of the sun. We also decided that since Sub changes its position both, from morning to evening and also seasonally, both technically called Solar Zenith and Solar Azimuth respectively.

Wait a minute, do I really need to write the technical stuff here? Really? I guess no. Okay, I'll not go in much detail. To build a solar tracked system, we had to work up on the mechanism to track the sun. Grossly mechanical and electronic stuff, much of it out of our knowledge. We resorted to the internet again, and found more than a dozen of ideas to go with. Finally we settled down with one we found on Collected all the required stuff (Had to make a few necessary changes because of the cost restraint and the availability of the components, which changed the entire project to be again done from scratch) So, finally, last year, we worked up and built a small prototype of the tracker. A Single Axis one, just to check what's happening in reality. And the result? Here it is for you to check it out. Though the thing is pretty much a discreet one, with the use of a thermocole panel to mimic the solar panel just for tracking the tracker, hardware, electronics and the software.

As visible in the video, the tracker still had some random jitters when tracking the light. And since this test was done in a more or less controlled environment, we still had a long way to go. Also, implementing the dual axis tracking was to introduce some more complications to the plan. The ideas we found over the internet were mostly concentrating on small models, suitable enough to be used in laboratories or as projects by some students, but no one had tried doing the same on a large scale (in a real life scenario) as we planned to. The components became bigger, and expensive and the implementation, more complex. The result? The way the smaller models worked in these illustrations wasn't possible for us to replicate, or it'd be better if I say, we had to do this in real life, so, needed much more robustness and reliability from the tracker. So, more time went into the research and development of ideas to do this again.
Later the same year, we built a second prototype (the first one of the Dual Axis tracking type), this time, since it was again a prototype, we just did some workarounds to test the functonality of the hardware, electronics and the software. What turned out had us overjoyed and even more optimistic about the project. It was working, yes it was (but again, in controlled environment, with artificial light sources, which we could control) This one again failed miserably as we moved out to test in the real life situation, out in the sun, where it was receiving light from all around, and the tracker just went crazy unable to really understand where to focus. Here's a video of the second prototype we built and tested in a controlled environment.

We again delayed the plan needing time to checkout the findings from the real life test and also considering the fact that we had to build a real life working prototype, which would be a scale model of the real tracker we were planning to build. So, we set on the mission to plan and build a design for the solar tracker, one which was capable of moving both horizontally, and vertically. A large part of last year and another bigger chunk of this year we spend on planning, designing and junking different designs. Our concerns were the space, which is quite less, as we didn't want to clutter the space we had on the rooftop by installing some expensive pieces of hardware, sitting in place, doing its work, but hampering ours. By the way, if you don't already know, I have a rooftop container garden, which already covers a big portion of the roof, so, I can't afford to reserve any more space. Actually, in reality, I won't be allowed to.

I guess this is already a really big post. I think I should cut back contents and do follow-up post with the rest part of the project. Moreover, since, we are now actively working on the project (when we get some time on sundays), so there will be a lot to share with you guys. So, I need to wrap up for now. See you in the next post, maybe, with a third video of the latest prototype, doing what and  how it was intended to.

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