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ELECTRICITY: Smaller microgrids are powering up developing nations | Energy Access Practitioner Network

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ELECTRICITY: Smaller microgrids are powering up developing nations

March 3, 2014

Daniel Lippman, E&E reporter

Reliable electricity is an essential convenience that people in the modern world usually take for granted. But in rural parts of the developing world, electricity is often much harder to come by.

Expanding the use of microgrids to help power those communities may be a key way to provide people with electricity while curbing the growth of fossil fuels. Microgrids are small electricity systems that can operate independently from or in conjunction with a main grid.

That’s according to a new report written by researchers at University of California, Berkeley, and Carnegie Mellon University and published by the United Nations Foundation that looks at both the huge potential for these small grids to expand power across the developing world and also the challenges of operating the systems correctly.

“These microgrids are building on increasingly modular natural and bio-gas combusting turbines, solar, wind, biomass, hydro and geothermal generation technologies that are improving rapidly in performance,” the report said.

The report examined some of the big management and technical practices that can imperil the success of microgrids, such as theft of electricity, poor tariff collection, bad contractors and overuse of electricity by customers. Such problems can create a “vicious cycle” that can lead to a spiraling down of the microgrid’s effectiveness, partly because customers often stop paying their power bills if their lights don’t work.

In one darkly amusing example, the research team visited a remote village in India that was inside a tiger preserve inside a larger nature preserve — in other words, a town perfect for the adoption of a microgrid, which had been installed.

“We were talking to the community leaders, and they said, ‘We had been getting a lot more energy, but now we get much less energy, and we don’t know why,'” said Dan Schnitzer, an author of the report and a Ph.D. candidate in the engineering and public policy department at Carnegie Mellon. “So we were looking at the [solar] panels and we saw that the panels were pretty heavily covered in dirt and dust and so they hadn’t been trained to wash the panels off,” which was making it hard to generate power.

It’s not just dirt on solar panels that creates problems. The developing world faces enormous challenges overall in just generating enough energy to allow people to live normal lives, access the benefits that power and light bring, and grow their economies.

Solving life-and-death issues

Without electricity, it’s hard for children without light to study, inhibiting their access to a good education and future jobs. A “worst-case scenario is that women die in childbirth because the clinic doesn’t have any access to electricity, and even if there is a nurse or a midwife there, they can’t see to be able to provide the life-giving services,” said Richenda Van Leeuwen, energy and climate director for the U.N. Foundation.

“It’s really expensive to extend the central grid out to be used in less-accessible areas,” which often have poor populations and few major industries and therefore aren’t great markets for big utility companies in the developing world, Schnitzer said. One main advantage of microgrids for these places is that they can be sized properly for generation and distribution needs of communities.

In the Haitian town of Les Anglais, the nonprofit group EarthSpark International started operating in November 2012 the country’s first microgrid in which customers prepay to receive power. Before the microgrid, residents in the primarily agricultural community used candles and kerosene for lighting and would charge batteries off diesel generators for electricity.

With the microgrid, “it’s cheaper, people are saving money, it’s much more convenient because you don’t have to burn kerosene or go somewhere else to charge your phone, and it’s better for people’s health,” said Allison Archambault, president of EarthSpark, whose executive director is Schnitzer. “Having a kerosene lamp indoors is like smoking 40 cigarettes a day.”

The microgrid, which currently uses excess electricity from a diesel generator run by the telecom company Digicel, will be expanded this summer into a much bigger generation system that is mostly solar-powered, with diesel backup and batteries.

“It is an exciting opportunity to leap-frog into clean and efficient energy technology,” said Archambault, whose group recently received a $1.1 million grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development to expand the microgrid, according to a release from Carnegie Mellon University.

“The same way that cellphones are able to deliver telecommunications service to people who were never connected with landlines, microgrids have the potential to deliver clean and efficient energy services to places that were not served by a central grid.”

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