Cranfield University and Concentrated Solar Power: Utilising the power of sunlight to bring clean cooking to rural areas
Cranfield University is testing a Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) device that could reduce pollution in Indian homes, schools, and canteens by replacing traditional cooking methods with the heat from concentrated sunlight, mitigating the effects of pollution that come with traditional cooking methods.
Cranfield aims to reduce the cost and increase the efficiency of CSP solutions. Energy Catalyst support enabled Cranfield University to develop a scalable, sustainable business model around their innovation, through financial support, strategic business services and networking opportunities.
Currently, communities throughout India utilise unreliable power sources to conduct their cooking, cleaning, washing up, and crop tending. Their daily life is routinely disrupted by extensive blackouts, which have left more than 700 million without power in extreme cases. Regular blackouts especially impact low-income individuals – further exacerbating food and income insecurity – and women, who are the primary caretakers of the household and who may feel more unsafe walking home at night.
Nationally, India is challenged by its dependency on other nations for fossil fuels to power its population. But the alternative – developing a sustainable CSP programme in India – is marked with its own challenges. CSP projects take a substantial amount of time to develop, requiring significant initial investment in a market that has yet to be demonstrated.
A CSP device is a system of mirrors that concentrate sunlight in one small area. The energy from the concentrated sunlight heats a high temperature in the receiver, which can either be stored and used as heat (thermal energy) or can be used to spin a turbine or power an engine to generate electricity. The concentrated light stored in the generator can be used as thermal energy for household activities like cooking, laundry and crop drying, with particular benefit to low-income families in remote off-grid locations. However, traditional CSP devices are not typically the most energy-efficient, nor are they affordable for low-income families.
Cranfield University, who is running an internationally acclaimed research and manufacturing team working on CSP, is developing a unique device that is scaled down from larger CSP systems (typically designed to serve thousands of people) to serve small groups of more than 8 people. Cranfield is deploying a solar energy-collecting dish which collects the solar rays with a rotational sun tracking mechanism. The system will also include backup power to make energy available when sunlight is low.
Cranfield University’s CSP project aims to build small energy-efficient and low-cost CSP-based cooking devices. It has tested the individual components of the solar cooking system to demonstrate proof of concept, but more testing is needed to combine the individual parts into a working system.
To test the complete set equipment for solar cooking in a school cooking setup, Cranfield plans to deploy the systems to two low-income schools, serving 100-200 students each, and in the coming 12-24 months, they intend to set up 2-4 cooking units in India, serving meals for 200-500 children. With the appropriate external and governmental funding, Cranfield could potentially install up to 10-20 cooking units which can serve regular meals for 1000-2000 children in the next one to two years.
However, restrictions associated with the pandemic, coupled with cloudy weather in India from June to October, have delayed progress. Cranfield’s current partners are Sarvaay Solutions Ltd, India and Cametics Ltd, Cambridge, UK. They also worked with Carbon Trust UK and Intellecap, India for guidance on how to potentially commercialise the solar cooking process. Cranefield is also the sole UK representative on the EERA-Joint Committee on CSP which steers EU research in CSP and has been employed as a CSP consultant to the Carbon Trust in a study funded by the UK Government through the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) and the Department for International Development (DFID).
The potential opportunities that this innovative device offers are significant and numerous, including low-cost, smoke-free cooking for mid-day meals in schools, small cafeterias, canteens, or at vendors. This system design makes Cranfield’s innovation perfectly suited to educational settings, where it can be used to cook lower-cost school meals without the chef needing to stand in the sun for long periods. Cranfield University is engaging with local schools and small canteens with women workers, cooks, and entrepreneurs.
Dr. Sameer Rahatekar from Cranfield University noted that the scalability, flexibility, and versatility of the CSP device means that “all kids in India and beyond India can benefit from this cooking method; there are millions and millions of students, and hundreds of thousands of schools to be served.”
Cranfield’s rapid development of their solution has been enhanced by Energy Catalyst’s financial and business support. When asked about Energy Catalyst’s investment in their program, Dr. Rahatekar commented: “Not only did they provide proper monitoring, but they’ve provided additional support in helping us scale and make this a successful business.” He felt that Energy Catalyst’s level of engagement was “refreshing,” as it supported their journey at every step of the way, encouraging further future scalability of the project. Through the guidance of Energy Catalyst, Cranfield’s CSP device has the potential to become a viable long-term business, one for which Dr. Rahatekar feels comfortable approaching private investors and expanding to countries such as Ghana and Malaysia. Dr. Rahatekar is working with the Cranfield University research commercialisation team to explore opportunity to create a spin out company based on the project work with Cranfield. The spin out company from Cranfield will help to market and supply the cooking set up beyond India in countries like sub-Saharan Africa, North Africa, and the Middle East.
In case spin out is not possible from Cranfield, they can still attract external funding based on the business activity in India in collaboration with existing Indian business partners. Regardless, they’ve found that “with the help of Energy Catalyst and programme partner, the Carbon Trust, we were able to find and fine-tune what could be done with our existing technology, and our team gained a lot of additional skills in terms of how to look for the right market,” Dr. Rahatekar said.