I was recently reading an article on the Grid of the Future where prosumers are both the producers and consumers of the power. It talks about how people will be able to use decentralized microgrids and not be dependent on centralized grid infrastructure for their energy needs. But if you look at the villages in rural India, Bangladesh and Africa, they seem to be already doing that.
Global Himalayan Expedition, a social enterprise from India is working towards providing energy access to the remote mountain communities. They are moving communities away from kerosene (Pre-industrial Revolution) to the technology of the 4th Industrial Revolution using decentralized microgrids to power up their houses with the latest LED lighting technology.
Compared to cities, the villages are technologically more advanced than their urban counterparts. Utilizing direct current, the villagers are able to generate with a small solar panel and battery, enough energy to power up 10 LED lights, one street light, one LED TV, two fans and mobile charging points. And this load is less than a single tubelight that is shining in a New York subway station. To compare, a single tubelight is lighting up a small area in the subway station, whereas the villager in Himalayas is lighting up her entire house with six to eight rooms and the streets outside with the same energy consumption. Don’t be surprised if a villager says that she has more advanced lighting than a New Yorker.
With the focus on renewable energy and more sustainable way of feeding our energy needs, net metering comes along as a very viable option to promote renewable energy usage and the microgrids in the urban scenario. Net metering allows people to feed energy back into the grid system, if generated using renewable energy, thereby reversing the house energy meter, resulting in less expenditure on the energy consumption. This option will reduce the stress on the grid infrastructure and incentivize the use of renewables, given the recent innovations in solar and drastic price reduction in the cost of energy generation using solar energy. India has been able to achieve a less price/watt for solar as compared to coal. Who could have imagined that 10 years ago?
Energy-sharing and Blockchain
Imagine a world where houses can share energy within themselves. If you are producing excess energy, you can sell it to someone within your locality who has a demand for energy, maybe because there is a function at their home or they have guests so they need extra heating power. This energy sharing will truly revolutionize the sector as we know it, for if you are on vacation, you can basically sell all the energy that is being generated by your setup to the entire community, earning money while on vacation. Sounds science fiction, but this is where blockchain can transform the decentralized power generation. If everyone in the same community is connected together at a local level, one owner can potentially produce more electricity because of excess production from his solar panels or less usage in the house, and sell it to the neighbor who needs excess energy.
The grids can be connected to each other via cloud into a virtual microgrid, with a real-time exchange of energy to guarantee that local production is consumed locally as well. Blockchain will allow transactions between these consumers to be settled through ‘i-contracts’ (intelligent contracts), which can choose for the customers where they can buy the excess energy from and how much excess they can buy from the different producers, and that transaction is registered on the blockchain.
This transaction is available to all the people in the blockchain network and makes sure that two different people cannot claim the same unit of energy produced and the corresponding monetary compensation. And this is being done at some basic level in the villages of Bangladesh, without blockchain as of now. Some companies have installed nanogrids that allow individuals to share their electricity with roughly a dozen other homes, of which some are equipped with solar panels and others not. Since homes equipped with solar home lighting often cannot even store all the energy they produce, while others don’t have access to electricity at all, a few companies have come up with a solution that allows users to resell their excess energy to their neighbors in a peer-to-peer way. The transaction is done through mobile-based payments and a digital system that records the transaction from one house to the other.
Microgrids Resilience and a Way Forward
With the recent hurricanes and storms that have impacted life of several nations across the globe, the first thing to get cut off was the power in the cities, because the traditional grids are not resilient against the extreme weather. Puerto Rico is another example where the island is still off power due to the central grid failure in the recent hurricane, knocking out electricity for more than 1 million residents.
Microgrids offer a much better solution in that they are isolated systems and so only the worst affected areas will suffer a power outage, whereas the rest of the city can function with available power, since the power is being generated on site. And then there is talk about how the next war is going to be fought not with guns, but on the internet, which makes our grid systems susceptible to cyber-attacks, taking down the power of an entire city or state. Stand-alone microgrids are insulated from such attacks and show more resilience versus traditional microgrids.
Central Grid destroyed in Hurricane leading to city wide power outage. Credit: Siemens
Going forward, there needs to be a very strong regulatory framework that promotes the use of microgrids using renewable energy at the consumer level, thereby reducing the load on the central grid system and also paving the way for a more sustainable form of energy generation. The relationship between the microgrid and the public-grid needs to be clearly outlined, with the public grid having knowledge of how much energy generation is happening at the microgrid level so that the planning for energy generation can be done accordingly. This has to be multi-stakeholder approach for a win-win scenario, otherwise it will be a futile war of microgrids vs the public grids where no one is a winner.
A man praying before an LED Light. Credit: Global Himalayan Expedition
Human-Led and Human-Centric
The 4th Industrial Revolution cannot be more human-led and human-centric, as in the case of future of energy. Access to energy empowers human beings to do the unthinkable; it serves as the base of the pyramid on which other foundations of education, health, employment, and livelihood can be built. It serves to provide basic human dignity for people to be able to see the food they eat at night. And the positive news is that all the advances made in the field of energy are only going to accelerate our mission to remove energy poverty from this world and deliver electricity to the 1 billion people who currently live without it.