Free App Shines a Light on Solar Energy

South African start-up Zero Point Energy in talks to license IBM’s solar app

By Katia Moskvitch

Have you ever wanted to go green, switch to renewables and help save the planet but… had no clue where to start? You’re not alone.

Homeowners are confused about energy. Most of us don’t know how to become more energy conscious — we may have good intentions, but if a solar energy provider were to ask us how many panels we would need on our house, we would have no idea.

IBM researchers wanted to change that. And what started as a small, local project in South Africa has now spread much wider. The free web-app they designed —IBM Research Empower Solar App — helps homeowners and small businesses to actually start using solar energy and not just wish they could — and now it’s available nearly all over the world.

“It’s like putting an electrical engineer in the palm of your hand,” says one of the researchers behind the project, Ashley Gritzman. “The idea was to enable people to have a meaningful conversation with energy providers. We wanted to help those who may not know precisely how much energy they use or what a kilowatt-hour is to understand how much it would cost to install solar panels if they watch TV for two hours every day and have the fridge running all the time.”

Gritzman, who before joining IBM founded his own solar firm, understands the value of building communities to grow solar adoption, which is why he has been involved in licensing the app with Zero Point Energy, a start-up based in Johannesburg focused on making sustainability simpler and cheaper with the ultimate goal of net-zero energy consumption and environmental impact.

“The app will continue our journey towards revolutionizing Africa with sustainable, scalable solar and green energy for both businesses and homes,” said AK Mohamed, Director and Co-founder, Zero Point Energy.

Early Development Stage

In 2018, Gritzman and his colleague Toby Kurien from the IBM Research lab in Johannesburg created a web-based app to allow homeowners in sub-Saharan Africa, where many more than 600 million people live without electricity, to do just that.

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Toby Kurien (left) and Ashley Gritzman demonstrate their app. Credit: IBM Research

Bedroom lights or boiling water?

It all started with lights.

“When I was a youngster, I used to get lectured about wasting electricity when I forgot to turn off the light in my bedroom,” recalls Gritzman. “But at the same time when I would boil the kettle, I’d fill it to the top because that was the polite thing to do.”

“But the question is, which is worse — leaving your lights on for an hour or boiling a full kettle? Turns out, it’s about ten times worse to boil a full kettle of water than to leave your light on for an hour.”

But not many of us know this — or know how many solar panels and batteries are needed to be able keep the lights on at night. This is where the app comes in handy.

If you do decide to install solar panels on your roof to power some of your electric appliances (or all of them, if you live in a remote area and have problems connecting to the grid), the first thing to do is to tell the app your location and the direction of your roof. The app gathers data about the location from satellites, and figures out how much sunshine you typically get. This makes a big difference, because you will need fewer solar panels if you are in sunny South Africa than if you are in the UK, for example.

Then the user is guided through the process of figuring out their household’s typical daily energy use — detailing, for instance, the number of LED lights and for how many hours they are left on, whether there is a fridge and a freezer in the house, and so on.

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The user can customize everything from direction to the electrical appliances.

In a couple of seconds, the app then does all the complex electrical engineering calculations, and runs through thousands of different system designs to recommend the most cost effective option to meet your needs.

The recommendation includes how many solar panels and batteries the homeowner would need, and also specifies the other necessary components such as a charge controller and an inverter, and the approximate cost for all of them. “The owners can say, ‘Let me see if I also want to power my air con and microwave,’” says Gritzman. “And they can see how that would change the cost.”

The free app was first piloted in South Africa. But it quickly became popular in other countries, so the developers made it available across Europe, the Americas and Asia. The only countries not currently supported are Australia, Canada and Russia, which is due to a lack of available data.

Kurien adds, “I personally use the app for my own solar designs that I build at home. As a DIY maker, I experiment with running everything from USB-powered air coolers, to my laptop, TV and lighting, as cheaply as I can get away with. I found that building many small solar power units was cheaper than trying to run my whole house on solar power.”

While the app suggests the price for various components for users based in South Africa, the design is relevant to other countries too, says Gritzman — so the user should be able to easily find an equivalent component where they live. The app outputs the cost in South African Rands, or for the rest of the world, in US dollars. And if there is a bug in the system, the researchers help users for free.

“We are a provider of algorithms and software — and with this tool, people are much more informed and encouraged to actually go and use renewables, not just hope they could,” says Gritzman.

This research was supported by the Department of Trade and Industry as part of the IBM South Africa Equity Equivalent Investment Program which fosters partnerships with IBM to address South Africa’s and Africa’s grand challenges.

Solar radiation data is provided by a project called “PVGIS,” which has been developed at the European Commission Joint Research Centre, at the JRC site in Ispra, Italy since 2001.

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This is the official Medium account of IBM Research. It’s managed by IBM Research’s Chief Writer Katia Moskvitch & follows the IBM Social Computing Guidelines.

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