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Microgrids by Mail Can Contribute to Rural Electrification

With policy focus, creative use of technology, and good management, minigrids can deliver 100 percent electrification for the ~1.5 billion mostly rural people worldwide — affordably, without global warming emissions, and within ten years. In urban deployments, renewables-powered minigrids will de-stress the electricity infrastructure. A whole new business is poised to launch. The time to begin is now.

Just as the miracle of universal telephony was inconceivable twenty years ago, yet it happened, universal electricity access is likely now. A whole new business with distributed topology, distinct from today’s centralized infrastructure, is taking birth.

Early rural microgrids will be hybrids of solar, wind, (bio-) diesel generators, micro-hydro, and batteries. They will strive for electricity self-sufficiency, independent of the macrogrid. In urban and campus deployments, such as universities and military bases, renewables-powered microgrids can de-stress the electricity infrastructure, contribute surplus power, and work independently should there be a natural disaster like Hurricane Sandy. 

Grid as a Russian Doll

The power grid is reminiscent of the Russian matryoshka doll, a set of nested figures, sold as a toy. The largest figure is analogous to the electricity grid as we know it — the generation, transmission, and distribution infrastructure that some call the largest machine in the world.

The smallest size doll is analogous to a pico-grid (let me call it) or a personal grid, solar panels on rooftops that feed appliances and lights in homes and office buildings. In between lie regional grids, community grids, minigrids, microgrids, and so on.

Just as each individual doll is related to the others and yet separate, varieties of grids are related yet distinct. The analogy only goes so far; as the grid evolves, the smaller grids will be in the tens of thousands, too numerous to be enveloped within a homogenous, single grid, unlike the doll.

The purists will quibble; the grid is a network of networks, neither nested nor standalone. But electricity future may be as an orchard, and not a wide-area network in many parts of the world.

Systems Integration and Professionalism

To make universal electricity access happen, however, several distinct strands of research need to come together. For instance, the U.S.’s NREL (National Renewable Energy Labs) and Lawrence Berkeley Labs work on optimizing multiple generation sources, demand management work in rural Bhutan, and the experimentation of grass root, next generation service providers such as Simpa Networks, Gram Power, Husk Power Systems, and Mera Gao Power. These complementary efforts must be synthesized to produce industrial-grade, standardized, modular, and replicable microgrids.  

Professionalism must complement well-intentioned, cause-driven, and social entrepreneurship efforts to meet the requirements of scale, scope, and reach. Markets need to be classified in order of financial feasibility. Cultural and institutional variations — regulations, support, affordability, and readiness of people — must be factored in with nuanced management.

Universal electrification with minigrids is neither a fringe nor only a rural matter — under its cover lies a potent new architecture for the restructuring of the electricity business as we know it, coal-based and polluting, and replace it with something new and clean. 

Edison — Distributed Generation Pioneer

New topologies require new visualizations. In Transmission and Distribution World, July 18, 2012, Paul Mauldin writes: “For more than 100 years, it has been an axiom of the power industry that bigger generating plants produce cheaper power, as measured in dollars per kilowatt capacity. In fact, the economies-of-scale principle has been a driver of most of the power industry’s technical development…until recently.”

Now is the age of distributed generation, tied to the grid most of the time, and sometimes independent. Mauldin points out that the first proponent of distributed generation was Thomas Edison himself. His “low-voltage DC system could only distribute power within about a mile radius from the generator, so he built many small generation units.”

Distributed generation, far from being a modern concept, is thus grounded in this bit of industrial history trivia. Of course, just as windmills and water mills are regarded as the precursors of today’s power industry, we have had distributed generation for a long time. Mauldin continues: “But this paradigm of small, close-to-the-customer generation units disappeared for about a century. Technical ingenuity, growing electrical demand, and economics soon pointed to the direction that the industry was to follow for almost a century.” New technical ingenuity and economics now points in a different direction. 

Blessings of Interesting Times

We live in privileged times. First, we experienced the mobile communications revolution; then the Internet revolution that partially swallowed the communications revolution, e.g., Internet on phones, and now we have the electricity re-revolution. It's the re-revolution because the electricity infrastructure was a revolution in itself. It dispelled darkness, extended the working day, enabled the birth of new industries, permitted wholesale transport, and augmented human power. 

Now the electricity grid intersects with the telecommunications and information infrastructure through smart grids, meters, and phone applications. It is fragmenting at the edges in regions where we have the grid. Where the grid does not exist, in rural India or Africa, the periphery is the center for electricity autonomy through distributed generation. This is mislabeled as “grid independence," but there is no grid to be free from in the first place.

To characterize this new center, we consider how widely it will spread its generated power. If it encompasses neighborhoods with thousands of households, we have community grids; for tens of households, we have the microgrids.

Mail Order Microgrid

The distributed generation movement, like most new revolutions, needs to be nudged along. The Obama administration’s energy policies have introduced a draft to aid this nascent industry. The U.S.’s NREL (National Renewable Energy Laboratory) has developed a microgrid that “ensures power during times of interruption from the main electricity grid, or provide power at remote locations not readily accessible to a reliable grid.…” and “The microgrid design…includes diverse energy sources such as solar, landfill gas, natural gas, and diesel fuel to provide continuous and independent electricity.” 

U.S. microgrids are primarily used at military installations, or for disaster management. In civilian use, the microgrid’s role is optional and complementary to the grid. Why fix something that does not appear broken?

For the wider world, the solution may be modified as follows: Village elders of non-electrified villages form cooperatives, check boxes on an electronic form to specify their needs, and make electronic down payments. Within days, a truck rumbles in the midst of about 50-100 homes. Children scamper excitedly to surround it.  

The truck contains a box holding a microgrid, a semi-finished assembly like IKEA furniture, with solar panels, small wind turbines, structural hardware, inverter, battery, and cables. A manual describes how to hook the equipment to each other and place the assembly on a pre-fabricated foundation. A mason firms up the structures, and an electrician, certified for solar installations, strings wires to individual homes.

With the proverbial push of the button, all homes in the population cluster get electric power. Rural electrification should be that simple. It is within our grasp. The existing U.S.-India Partnership to Advance Clean Energy (PACE) might include, with NREL help, the creation of a scalable, rural microgrid on its agenda. The World Bank should sponsor this effort for widespread deployment of the solution around the world.

Lead image: Packaging box via Shutterstock

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