UW–Madison tech startup Elektrifi increases electricity reliability in the developing world

Left to right: Solar panels, interior of Elektrifi gridbox, a home in rural India lit up by Elektrifi. The transmission infrastructure behind the house provided only unreliable electricity. Ashray Manur

In Mavinahalli, India, some customers have electricity, but only for a few hours a day. The rest of the time, they may need to use kerosene for light, and walk long distances through areas with high densities of venomous snakes to charge their cell phones. 

Microgrids—small, independent electricity networks that serve just a few users and are often powered by renewable energy sources—have made electricity more widely-available in the developing world, but reliability remains a challenge.

Elektrifi, a UW–Madison spinoff and student-led startup just recently accepted into the MidWest Energy Research Consortium Wercbench Labs accelerator program, is hoping to increase the reliability of microgrid service in India and around the world. Ashray Manur, a UW–Madison Ph.D. student in the electrical and computer engineering department and a founder of the startup, is studying how to improve microgrid stability via “smart” microgrids, which integrate communication and computing systems with traditional electricity infrastructure. 

Manur says that energy service companies providing microgrid service in rural areas typically install what are known as “analog” solar systems. These systems are comprised of solar panels, a battery, lights, cell phone chargers, and perhaps a few appliances. Most of the time, they do a great job providing service to people who otherwise might not have it.

“The good thing about these analog systems is that they’re simple,” Manur says. “But the challenge is that there’s no digital computing or communication system, so there’s no current way to monitor them.” 

Unmonitored systems can be unreliable for multiple reasons. One reason is demand management: customers may not be aware of how much electricity is available, and can run out if the battery is not sufficiently charged. Second, if a technical issue arises in an unmonitored system, providers have no way to learn about it and address it quickly. If this happens, customers may have to go without electricity for long periods while they wait for service to be restored. 

The Elektrifi team is developing an energy management system—a hardware and software platform coupled with grid intelligence—which it hopes will remedy these reliability challenges. Designed to efficiently automate tasks, such as turning on the battery charger or turning off appliances to prevent the battery from being overdrawn, the system will also enable the user to make decisions about which electricity-using activities are critical to them. That way, they can prioritize those activities at times when service is limited. Should technical issues arise, the system will automatically log an error to the cloud, so it can be reviewed by the Elektrifi team.

“With an energy management system, now I can look at it from my phone and see how the battery is doing and how many loads are on. In the future I can even look at the weather in that area and how it correlates with usage,” Manur explains.

The project is a collaboration between UW–Madison and a partner university in India, the National Institute of Engineering. It was spearheaded by Giri Venkataramanan, professor of electrical and computer engineering at UW–Madison. Venkataramanan initiated research and development for the startup a few years ago with the help of graduate students and other collaborators. In addition to Manur, the core team includes Maitreyee Marathe, an incoming Ph.D. student at UW–Madison in Venkataramanan’s lab, and Abhishek Ramachandra, an undergraduate student at the National Institute of Engineering in India.