Grand Challenges Supports Testing Power In A Box

Igor Heifetz ・ High Meadows Environmental Institute

This summer, Bermuda is the testing ground for a unique project that aims to bring a renewable source of electrical power to disaster-torn regions.

The project comes out of Princeton University in Princeton, New Jersey and is called Princeton Power in a Box. The idea was born after the 2008 Haiti Earthquake when relief workers and medical personnel struggled to save lives with the power grid completely knocked out in many places.

Power in a Box is a wind/solar hybrid system, built to fold neatly into a standard 20ft shipping container. This allows Power in a Box to ship anywhere in the world and be transported on the ground by a flatbed truck. At the moment, the container is at the Bermuda Institute for Ocean Sciences (BIOS) and is powering the Atlantis project there. The Atlantis project, owned by Universite Laval, is working with the Bermuda Government to study environmental and human health issues.

“The plan was initially to go to Haiti, but students went there in 2009, and found the government was a bit disorganised,” said Princeton junior Ryan Fauber. “It was hard to get anything pushed through. We thought it would be better to test it in a place closer to the United States with a government more like the America’s before we started working with really different governments. Because Bermuda is fairly windy and fairly sunny it allows us to test all of the components at once as well as shipping internationally and figuring out duty and customs offices and working through permits in the United States.”

Jacqueline Li, sophomore, gave The Royal Gazette a brief tour of the container that is parked in a corner of the field at BIOS. A 35ft tower with a wind turbine at the top pokes out of the container. It has a tarpaulin top with a hole cut out to let the turbine poke through. There are also three solar panel on either side of the tower which fold out from the container.

“The wind turbine and solar panels feed into a hybrid charge controller,” said Miss Li. “Through this charge controller the power from the wind turbine and solar panels go into the battery bank on the floor. We have 12 batteries. It is a 24 volt system and can hold three days of power. In order to get power out of the batteries we use an inverter that converts the 24 volts and DC of the batteries to 120 volts and AC of a regular outlet.”

It produces around three kilowatts of power a day, at least enough to power a couple of computers, a refrigerator and a cell phone recharger. That could make all the difference to a relief agency or small clinic working in an area hit by crisis. Wind turbines are not currently used because they, until now, have not been portable.

The tower can withstand winds of 70 miles per hour. It is telescoping, so it can be lowered to withstand even higher winds, or can be turned on its side and put back in the box. The container includes a wind sensor and a solar sensor so that students can collect and analyse data on how much power is being produced.

“What makes this novel is that it is completely manual,” said Mr Fauber. “It requires no power to set up. It fits into a standard shipping container which means it can be sent anywhere in the world. We have winches which allow us to raise the turbine and lower it with just manpower. One of the application we perceive this being used for is disaster relief, so especially in situations where there is no power there already. This can be set up in about 45 minutes and be producing power. You have these winches that are easy to operate and take all the weight off the person operating it.”

Three students have come to Bermuda to test out the project, but there are 13 students in total who are all part of the Engineering Projects in Community Service class. They came up with the concept, design, purchased materials and built it from start to finish with professors only acting in an advisory capacity.

The project received support from the National Science Foundation, the Princeton Civil and Environmental Engineering Department, and Princeton’s Grand Challenges programme.

“Over four years, this project has grown from a small system producing half of this amount of power,” said Mr Kosk. “Once we get back to Princeton we will be upgrading the system to an even bigger one that will produce almost twice the capacity almost.”

Mr Fauber hoped that organisations such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) would be interested. They have already had interest expressed by members of the Navaho nation who live off the power grid.

“We have been working through a few issues,” said Mr Fauber. “When we first built it and we put it up, we had the whole thing raised and a gust of wind came and knocked the whole thing down. It was probably the most devastating 20 minutes of our entire project. We examined it and nothing was actually broken. We winched it back up and it was fine. It was a mechanical error. If it gets to hurricane strength winds it takes ten minutes to crank for the whole thing down. You can raise it in wind and lower it in wind. The whole thing is guy wired and secured to the base of the container.”

Part of the way through the summer Princeton in a Box plans to move to Wadson’s Farm where Tom Wadson is currently working on a greenhouse project.