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Microgrids Missing from the UN’s Sustainable Energy for All Initiative

Emerging economies, especially India, desperately need a novel, suitable electricity solution; alas, what exists is a hundred years old and unsuited for our times. This situation is frustrating because affordable, clean, 100 percent electrification, technologically speaking, is at hand yet no one has stepped forward to lead.

In embracing new electricity paradigms, India has little to lose. The need is real. ~ 300 million of the ~1.3 billion people worldwide without electricity access are in India. The quality and amount of electricity for grid-connected India is sporadic and unreliable at best.

Collectively, the un-electrified nations of Asia and Africa represent a large market. Recognizing the scale of the problem, the UN has launched the SE4ALL (Sustainable Energy for All) initiative. While timely and well intentioned, I am afraid it will have only a limited impact. A fundamental technical problem remains unsolved, namely, industrial grade microgrids.

Wanted: Micro Electric Utilities

Here is an astonishing fact: There is no technology anywhere in the world that ties together multiple electricity sources (for instance, solar panels, micro-hydro, bio-gas generators, fuel cells, and batteries) in an integrated way, so as to optimally and automatically meet the demand, varying by day and by seasons, of a population of about ~1,000 at the lowest possible cost.

The U.S. has done some work on 5-MW and larger microgrids for military bases, jails, campuses, and large residential high-rise buildings. Yet that does not help those in South Asia or Africa who lack reliable electricity.

Why have Micro Electric Utilities (MEU) of this kind not been designed and implemented, or emerged spontaneously in the market? 

  1. The developed markets have robust and reliable grids, and do not immediately need small, new solutions. Why “fix” something that is not broken?
  2. The multinational companies, suppliers to the current electricity infrastructure, have stuck to their core historical business, with no solutions specific for emerging economies. The latter have emulated the increasingly obsolete existing model.
  3. Distributed generation (DG) technologies comprising the microgrids have only recently begun to be economical.
  4. Missing within the emerging economies is a vision that incorporates the technological possibilities and corresponding “can do” leadership.

China and India have the financial wherewithal, technical capability, and institutions to create the needed solution, but they have not.

Once available the MEUs can be standalone solutions, customizable and scalable. Implementation can be rapid, decentralized, and independent of the existing grid. It is a singular moment ripe with possibilities, with public policy providing the necessary impetus. 

Comparative Electricity Strategy

Let me note China’s massive investments in solar photovoltaics production that reduced prices and boosted the world renewable energy market, an important contribution.

India has largely bet on grid-tied renewables through the Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission. India’s other strategy has been grid extension. The electrification responsibilities have been split between the Ministry of Power and the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy. This is sub-optimal on many levels: 

  • Grid-tied renewables suffer transmission losses that are among the highest in the world in India at ~ 30 percent. The sun’s energy, converted into electricity through ingenious science, is lost in a wasteful delivery network
  • Grid extension to remote villages is uneconomical the further away one moves from population centers.

Unfortunately, rooftop solar — for light, phone charging, and fans — has been relatively ignored even though it has been a notable success in Bangladesh. See, for instance, Nancy Wimmer’s (2012) book, Green Energy for a Billion Poor: How Grameen Shakti Created a Winning Model for Social Business.

Admittedly, solar on rooftops is a Band-Aid for immediate relief. There is no alternative to technically sophisticated and professionally managed solutions, for the demand for electricity among the rural and poor households will inevitably grow. Refrigeration, TV, Internet access, and induction cooking are necessities, too. Planning must include solutions for such uses in a ten-year horizon. Rooftop solar is an essential but not a sufficient solution. 

Size and Technology Bias

Why should electricity be produced in hundreds of megawatts by burning fossil fuels, and not in chunks of about 1 MW each? With emerging technologies, it is clear that large-scale generation and transmission are no longer necessary for low cost electricity.

Historically, electricity production has closely mapped to generation sources or technologies. We have coal, nuclear, and hydro solutions. We have solar, wind, diesel, biomass-based, and occasionally hybrid solutions combining, say, solar with micro-hydro and batteries. Yet we have no comprehensive small electricity solutions. No one says, “I will supply electricity to this cluster of homes, 24*7; how may I best do it, given today’s technologies and future demand?”

The bias toward technologies, large size, and particular fuels is understandable – electricity has been a regulated monopoly, wrongly regarded as a commodity. While technology and regulatory talk abounds, there is little discussion about customer attributes, segments, new products, and competition.

What Piyush Goyal Can Do

The newly elected Modi administration in India has placed the New and Renewable Energy, Coal, and Power ministries under a single minister, Piyush Goyal — a promising first step. This unity of command across energy sub-sectors can work wonders. Note that 1-MW microgrids transcend the old administrative boundaries, since renewables, storage devices, and traditional generators are included in the mix.

Here is what the minister might do: Identify the topmost scientists from academia and industry, including multinationals, in operations research, power engineering, data networking, and business modeling, and give them a mission to design and build a scalable, microgrid (1 MW or smaller) that automatically meets the load requirements of ~200 households, in villages and urban areas, through a combination of generation sources that produce electricity at the lowest cost.

The resulting technology may be patented, licensed, and commercialized by private companies, who may modify and market it worldwide.

A $50 million R&D budget and 18 months can yield a solution. This is a small price to pay toward 100 percent electrification; reliable and secure power; and individual empowerment in remote and urban areas alike.

Lead image: Transmission lines via Shutterstock

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