Greening the Spark

By Rob Zwetsloot. Posted

What do you want to do when you retire? Some might want to relax, others might like to travel. Carl Nicholson had a different idea.

“When I retired and moved back to the UK, I wanted to do something that would raise awareness of climate change and help people understand the ideas behind green energy,” Carl tells us. “I also wanted an excuse to do electronics, maths, coding, and making physical models and equipment.”

The result of this was Greening the Spark, a “simulator of a National Grid designed as a hands-on museum exhibit which can also be played as a game,” as Carl describes it.

Carl comes from a background of making and simulators, working in space operations in Munich, training astronauts and flight controllers on the Columbus module of the International Space Station, and also being the technical director of the company that made the first commercial Crystal Mazes.

Renewable interest

Why did Carl choose Raspberry Pi, though?

“I wanted a small but powerful single-board computer with Wi-Fi and sound, a wide range of off-the-shelf third party hardware and software, and a suitable well-supported language and IDE to code it with,” Carl says. “Raspberry Pi and Python turned out to be the perfect combination.”

Building it took a while, and was apparently very hard, as everything else was designed and built from scratch using the Red Robotics RedBoard+, an add-on robotics controller for Raspberry Pi. It does quite a lot, though.

“There are software models of renewable electricity sources (wind and solar) driven by a weather model, non-renewables (fossil fuels and nuclear) which are controllable, storage devices (batteries and pumped hydro), and consumer demand,” Carl explains. “There is a working model of a wind farm (with three turbines) and a sunlamp. The idea is to control the fossil fuel and nuclear power to meet demand without blackouts or surplus and to keep the storage devices close to half-full.

“There is an operator control panel to monitor and control the grid, and a visitor control panel to set up a game. There are three ‘characters’ who help visitors understand what is going on with spoken messages: a robotic system voice and two human guides, as well as sound effects and music to add ambience.”

As it’s a game, players get a result which is uploaded to a dedicated website, including a summary of what you did and a certificate related to your final ‘score’. “In a museum installation, there will also be a themed landscape with physical mock-ups of the various elements,” Carl adds.

Futuristic energy

The project is still ongoing, although is already quite impressive. Carl has ideas for what he’d like to do with it, though.

“I’m hoping to interest museums of science and technology, energy supply companies and possibly the National Grid itself, as well as schools and universities,” Carl says. “I’m also keen to develop both the hardware and software to make it more modular, generic, smarter, and connected. It would be nice to use live data streamed from the National Grid and some AI in the control system.”

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