Extending Solar to Islands and the Developing World with Energy Storage

On islands and in much of the developing world, diesel fuel is the major source of energy for electricity generation. For islands, potential alternatives such as coal and natural gas simply aren’t locally available, and diesel is the easiest fuel to ship. In the developing world, the lack of access to a reliable grid infrastructure (or any grid infrastructure at all) forces communities, businesses and households to turn to diesel generators if they want a reliable source of electricity. For instance, Hawaii gets approximately 70 percent of its power from petroleum, while in Nigeria and India diesel generation is essential if one wants dependable access to electricity.

There are many drawbacks associated with using diesel fuel for electricity generation. For one, it is dirty. Diesel fuel is a major source of particulate matter, also known as soot, which is responsible for approximately 3.2 million premature deaths in the world each year. Moreover, the black carbon associated with this particulate matter, along with the greenhouse gases that are also emitted when diesel fuel is consumed, contribute to global warming. Using diesel to generate electricity is not good for our planet or our health — over the short term and long term.

Diesel isn’t cheap. On islands, it might be more affordable than shipping other fossil fuels, but its use still results in high electricity prices. For instance, the Caribbean has some of the world’s highest electricity prices. And in much of the developing world diesel fuel is sold at the worldwide market price, meaning the electricity it generates is expensive. Diesel in Indonesia is heavily subsidized. According to McKinsey, diesel generators in developing countries produce power at prices ranging from just under 30 cents per kilowatt-hour to 65 cents per kilowatt-hour.

In spite of the expense, islands and developing nations have for a long time had little choice but to turn to diesel if they wanted access to electricity. Recently, however, a new alternative to diesel has emerged — solar power. Unlike diesel, solar power generation does not result in the emission of particulate matter, greenhouse gases or other pollutants — it is clean. And solar power systems do not use costly imported fuels, but sunlight, which is free. Previously, the cost of solar panels was a major obstacle to their adoption, but with solar panel prices declining by 80 percent since 2008, this is no longer the case. The decline in solar prices is expected to continue, making solar power even more affordable for households, businesses and utilities — which is great for consumers on islands and in the developing world.

Solar, however, has one major drawback when compared to diesel generation — availability. Solar power systems do not generate power at night, and the power they generate during the day can fluctuate. This lack of consistent power availability has made it difficult for those on islands or in developing countries to make the switch to solar.

Fortunately, new energy storage technology can address this availability problem. Energy storage systems can stabilize island grids that are largely dependent on intermittent solar power, providing a high quality, uninterrupted power supply. They enable the development of more renewable energy sources, such as solar-based microgrids, helping isolated communities develop their own clean power infrastructures.  Energy storage systems can also help businesses and families on islands and in developing countries break free from their dependence on dirty diesel generators, and fully embrace the use of clean energy all day and night.

Until recently, island grids, solar powered microgrids, and individual businesses and households couldn’t justify their use of solar-storage systems because existing energy storage technologies required frequent replacing, dramatically increasing the cost of the system over its lifetime. That’s not even mentioning the sheer complexity and requisite technical knowledge involved with deploying such a system. But this is changing.

According to GTM Research’s Shayle Kann, energy storage system costs are “in rapid decline.” In particular, the introduction of new battery technologies, like flow batteries — which can utilize recycled vanadium and be discharged and charged tens of thousands of times with no impact on their lifespans — are disrupting traditional battery economic assumptions. Concurrently, advances in intelligent grid technology, like integrated inverters, controls, smart demand-response, etc., have made installing and optimizing solar-storage system far more affordable and feasible.

The introduction of new, affordable, long-lived, scalable battery technologies, combined with the continuing decline in solar power system costs, has created an opportunity for islands and developing countries to significantly reduce their dependence on diesel electricity generation. By combining solar power with batteries, they can finally secure clean, affordable and high-quality power.

For too long diesel has been the developing world’s dirty little energy secret. But its drawbacks — pollution, cost, and poor power quality — are increasingly difficult to ignore. Energy storage enables us to move beyond diesel, and fully realize the promise of solar power and other renewable energy technologies. With energy storage, islands and the developing world can be leaders in accelerating our world’s transition to a reliable, low-cost, low-carbon energy future.

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Mr. Hennessy has over 25 years experience in the power industry working in Africa, Europe, the USA and China. He was President of Prudent Energy Inc. from 2009 until 2013. He pioneered megawatt scale, behind the meter energy storage in California using tax structured entities in 2011. Prior to Prudent Energy, he was CEO of VRB Power Systems Inc. which commercialized the VRB® technology. He has held positions including Managing Director European operations of LECTRIX (a Bechtel: AEP: Siemens JV), Vice President of PacifiCorp Energy Services, Quality of Supply Manager for ESKOM and was a founder and Principal of Power Quality Technology. He has served on the boards of several public companies and holds a Master of Science & Engineering. He is a registered professional engineer and holds 65 international patents.

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