Powerco engineer Ken Pattie is the brains behind BasePower, believed to be a world-first module system that hooks into renewable energy, has a box of electronics to control the power load, a backup generator, if needed, and is possibly more reliable than the national power grid.
It requires little maintenance, and the only thing customers need to remember is to top up the diesel for the generator, and they can pass that job on to others.
BasePower is also up for a prestigious national award, but more about that later.
“It’s an idea I had a couple of decades ago and I’m quite lucky working with Powerco, because they have let me develop the idea into a working system,” Ken says.
“I’ve always had a hankering for electricity because I know what it’s like to live without it.”
The 52-year-old says when he was a lad, his dad was a school inspector for the British government, which led the family to places like the Solomon Islands, Papua New Guinea and Hokianga.
“In those areas, electricity was very, very valuable and we had kerosene lighting,” he says.
It’s not surprising then that Ken ended up as an electrical engineer.
After about 10 years in the industry, he went to Massey University to complete a couple of papers on alternative power under the tutelage of Professor Ralph Sims, a world leader in his field.
It was there that he had the idea to deliver renewable energy to people in remote places.
“Once I finished the papers, I realised there wasn’t the economic driver to make it successful. Now, 20 years later, the economic drivers are right.” Environmental viewpoints have also changed.
In 2008, Powerco allowed the Whanganui engineer to do a pilot study using micro-hydro, solar power, a wind turbine and LPG.
“We installed that system on a woolshed for a year in Taihape. It worked. The customer was happy and we were happy.”
Most of the power for the site was provided by solar power, and the gas was used for hot water and cooking.
The study also showed that a diesel generator was needed for about 30 days a year, when there were high demands for power. All the equipment was installed in the woolshed, but Ken wasn’t happy with that.
“It occurred to me then that we should be looking at a module system,” he says. This module would be outside the house, behind a hedge or in a shed, so it was out of sight and easy to access.
“Instead of having a transformer up a pole, you have a couple of boxes on the ground providing the same energy.” And so BasePower was born.
“I believe it’s the only system like it in the world. I’m amazed no- one else has come up with it.
“Hindsight is a wonderful engineering tool. If I could bottle it, I would be a very rich man.”
In February this year, the first BasePower modules were connected to a farm workers’ house and shearing shed on a remote hill-country sheep station up the Whanganui River. The ageing power lines at Papahaua Station were due to be replaced, so it was an ideal site to demonstrate the technology.
“People stay in the house when they are hunting and when they are doing a lot of work on the farm,” Ken says. That integrated system is powered by solar panels.
BasePower, a subsidiary of Powerco, now has orders to install modules on three more sites. These are houses with micro- hydro potential.
Ken says that before putting in BasePower modules, the project is run through an economic model and if it’s better for Powerco to put in these units than put in the lines, it will advise accordingly.
Powerco business development manager Jamie Silk says the modules are ideal for people living in the back blocks.
“We thought for really remote customers, lines supply is never perfect, because of storms and slips that take out lines and trees that grown into lines,” Jamie says.
“It’s great, but it’s a 20th- century invention. Now, in the 21st century, there are choices.”
The BasePower modules give people the same supply as lines, and still at the flick of a switch. For people who want to be sustainable, but aren’t handy with gadgets, it may seem daunting.
“That’s why we came up with a stand-alone power system with all these things in one box.”
The beauty of BasePower system is that it does everything itself, Jamie says. “You turn everything on and off, just like in a lines-fed house.”
People on BasePower still need to reduce their power use, by opting for energy-efficient appliances, and switching things off when not in use.
While Powerco recommends a high-quality generator as part of the package, Jamie says someone could elect to just have renewable energy, especially if they have a micro-hydro turbine.
The generator is ideal for people who want to be energy-efficient most of the year, but when they have family at Christmas or Easter don’t have to be restrained.
“They would be able to have the coffee grinder and the cappuccino machine going,” Jamie says.
“The generator kicks in when the demand for power in the house is higher than the energy stored in the batteries or what energy the batteries should release, plus the renewable energy being generated.”
Ken says the generators are used at optimum efficiency, so when they are working, they are at an 80 per cent loading. Most generators burn diesel, but only provide 30 per cent of power.
For each litre of fuel, the Powerco generators provide two kilowatts of power, compared with less-efficient generators that produce 800 watts of power per litre of diesel.
The generator fills up the batteries. “Once the batteries are full, the load management system says, ‘I don’t need the diesel generator any more – I will turn you off’.” When a generator is getting low on diesel, a radio signal is sent to an alarm on the switchboard inside the house.
But if a customer wants to be even more hands off, they can have that signal sent to the rural diesel people, who come in and fill up the tank and then send the bill.
Ken says this will cost energy- efficient people about $400 a year.
Those with BasePower still pay the equivalent of lines charges to maintain the system and replace batteries in the future.
He says the batteries should last 10 to 15 years because they are housed in fully insulated boxes and their temperature is kept between 22 and 25 degrees Celsius.
Also, the electronics in the load management system never allow them to fully drain.
Extreme temperatures, taking a battery down to zero energy storage or trying to charge too quickly are the sure ways to kill batteries, which are the biggest investment in off-the-grid systems.
At NZ$100,000, the BasePower system is not cheap. This price covers full installation of the unit, which includes photovoltaic panels and BasePower unit, the energy storage unit (batteries), load management system, generator and satellite communications, so Powerco can check it from afar.
“My plan is to get that cost down to NZ$50,000,” Ken says. With new battery technology on the horizon, plus a growing interest in sustainable practices, he believes that price is not far away.
In the meantime, BasePower has entered the Deloitte Energy Excellence Awards.
On August 17, Ken, Jamie and the Powerco crew will know if the module has won an Innovation in Electricity Award.
For Ken, seeing his idea come to fruition is already huge for him.
“I’m now in my 50s and now I have basically seen a dream happen, which a lot of people don’t get to see,” he says.
– Taranaki Daily News