Student technology harnesses turbine data

Joseph Belter GRD ’15 developed a new technology this summer that facilitates access to wind turbine data.
Joseph Belter GRD ’15 developed a new technology this summer that facilitates access to wind turbine data. Photo by Henry Ehrenberg.

As the blades of the wind turbine, perched at the top of Kenya’s Mount Ekialo Kiona, began to turn, Joseph Belter GRD ’15 watched hours of lab work whir to life.

Belter discussed the creation of his “Bit-Harvesters” system at a talk Wednesday afternoon held at the Center for Engineering, Innovation and Design. Earlier this year, he designed the electronic system that collects current and voltage data from wind turbines and sends it via text message to local turbine users. The data allows locals to monitor their energy use. This information is also used by Access:Energy, a company which designs the turbines, to determine product efficiency and make improvements if necessary.

Belter’s Bit-Harvesters design grew out of a collaboration with Harrison Leaf GRD ’12, co-founder of Access:Energy, for a project in their mechanical engineering course “Appropriate Technology in the Developing World.” The course’s focus on the use and transport of electricity in the developing world led them to discuss Access:Energy, a group that helps local Kenyan artisans manufacture electricity-generating wind turbines from found metal and parts. The two collaborated with Access:Energy to install three Bit-Harvesters in Kenya this summer.

“The course offered an environment where these two students with very different backgrounds and training were able to come together to create a long-lasting relationship that would extend outside the classroom,” said Joseph Zinter, CEID assistant director and one of the course’s instructors.

Belter’s system allows users to sift through a large volume of real-time data — since installing the application in June, Access:Energy has received constant data updates from the turbines every three seconds.

The data showed Access:Energy that on average the turbines produced approximately 60 percent of their expected power. Since evaluating the data, Access:Energy has adjusted the blade size and length of the turbine tails.

Using the data, the group can better determine where to build future turbines that will yield the most power given the local wind conditions. The information has also helped facilitate turbine maintenance and repair.

“If we get a call that a turbine has stopped working, we can immediately go into the data and see if the current and voltage stopped suddenly or whether a new part is needed,” Belter said. “It saves the time of traveling out to the site, finding out the problem, returning to the workshop for the exact part or tool, and then going back.”

Beyond helping Access:Energy increase the efficiency of its six turbines, the data also allowed users to get a sense of the amount of energy they used.

Belter recalled setting up the monitor for a turbine on Kenya’s Rusinga Island. After the box displaying the data was placed in a local’s house, Belter said he followed the man around as he turned on various appliances and saw their energy usage.

“Just by having him see the amount of energy he was using in real time, it gave him a little more perspective on how he should allocate the power that he has,” Belter said.

The CEID has been increasingly focused on developing technologies for assisting in worldwide community development, said CEID Director Eric Dufresne. These sorts of projects allow students to go beyond a purely theoretical perspective and consider the human aspect while designing, he added.

Alex Carillo ’16 said Belter’s talk made him recognize engineering’s capacity to provide a social impact.

“A lot of my interest in engineering was in building really cool things, but increasingly at Yale I’m beginning to understand that you can build things that solve problems,” Carillo said. “This talk showed me you could build things that are fun to implement but also maximize utility.”

The three Bit-Harvesters were named after the planeteers from Captain Planet — Linka, Wheeler and Kwame.

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