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The IIoT Powered Village—Creating Solutions That Brighten the Lives of Remote Communities

Jul 03, 2020
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It may be difficult to imagine life without electricity, but in South Africa, rural villages have lacked a reliable source of electricity for a long time. Many villages are not even connected to the power grid; because they are so far from electric infrastructure, connecting them to the grid would be extremely expensive. Also, with so few users, the revenue generated wouldn’t be able to cover the expenses required for maintenance alone. Unfortunately, this lack of power significantly impedes economic growth, corporate investment, governmental activities, and development for these communities.

The Naledi Trust community in the Free State province of South Africa is a perfect example of this. With only 34 households, economic growth is difficult without reliable power, and unemployed residents wandering the streets can lead to public safety issues. In order to address this issue, the South African government initially tried installing solar panels for each household. However, this attempt ended in failure; due to poverty and the high unemployment rate, the solar panels were stolen and sold on the black market. Determined to find a solution, the government initiated a two-year program to develop an off-grid sustainable power solution for remote villages.

An off-grid power solution, also known as an isolated or island power system, would be ideal. It would allow communities to be powered by electricity generated by a centralized local facility rather than relying on a remote power station. This would eliminate the cost of building and maintaining infrastructure to connect to a power grid hundreds of miles away. This led the South African government to look into Chung Hsin Electric & Machinery’s (CHEM) hydrogen fuel cell system. CHEM’s ME2 fuel cell system can generate up to 15 kW of clean energy, and a peak of 70 kW with the support of batteries. This would be sufficient to supply power for all 34 households in the Naledi Trust community. Additionally, because fuel cell systems are large and can weigh over 300 kg, theft of the system would be very difficult.

CHEM’s ME2 system was ideal for providing reliable, clean electricity, but there were two challenges that remained. First, operation and maintenance costs would be high. Second, the initial cost of investment would be prohibitive, especially when compared to traditional diesel generators. To get past these obstacles, CHEM partnered with Moxa to augment their system with IIoT capabilities, transforming both CHEM’s fuel system and their business model.

Reducing Operation and Maintenance Costs

In order to ensure reliable, 24/7 access to electricity, regular deliveries of methanol fuel would be necessary. Additionally, the system would be installed in a harsh outdoor environment, and would need to be inspected for issues regularly. Due to very nature of being a remote community, the costs of arranging fuel delivery and engineer site visits would be costly. “It takes a lot of manpower to conduct inspections and manage the logistics of fuel delivery. As all systems are located at remote places, it was a challenge for us to improve our maintenance metrics without a network,” said Amy Liao, Director of the Hydrogen Department at CHEM.

Adding IIoT capabilities to the CHEM’s fuel cell system turned this around. By integrating Moxa’s cellular remote I/O solution, real-time operational data could be sent to a control center. This allowed for real-time detection of low fuel levels, helping CHEM organize the logistics of fuel delivery. Deliveries could be efficiently arranged as needed rather than on a set schedule where delivery could be too early or too late. Also, remote maintenance was now a possibility. System status could be monitored at any time, and basic issues could be resolved remotely. Maintenance personnel would only need to make site visits when necessary. Empowering CHEM’s system with IIoT capabilities resulted in a 50% reduction in deployment and maintenance costs.

Reducing Initial Investment Costs

As a clean energy source, fuel cell systems have a much higher cost compared to diesel generators, and can act as a barrier to entry for many customers. The high cost of purchasing a fuel cell system for a single remote village can make it difficult for governments to decide whether to approve such a sizable investment. But now that CHEM’s fuel cell system was enabled with IIoT connectivity, usage could be monitored remotely. Data on power consumption, voltage, conditions, power supply time, fuel levels, and more could be accurately tracked from a control center. “The IIoT is transforming our business model. We are transitioning from selling a product to offering Machines-as-a-Service,” said Amy Liao. Through the Machine-as-a-Service business model, CHEM could now establish long-term business relationships where they charged for actual power generated and consumed rather than for sale of the system itself. By eliminating the high cost of entry, CHEM now had access to a much larger customer pool and new revenue streams.

Now, the lives of the people in the Naledi Trust community have been transformed. Reliable power brings new commercial and economic activity, and education and government services can keep running. “It’s my sincere wish that our IIoT solutions can bring light to all the remote villages in the world, changing the world for the better.” said Eddy Lin, General Manager of Moxa’s Intelligence Business Group.

For the full case study, click here.

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