Developing Nations Look to Remote Microgrids for Energy Solutions

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According to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), what Pike Research defines as a “remote microgrid” is not a microgrid. The DOE defines a microgrid as a distribution system connected to a larger utility grid, with its defining characteristic being the ability to disconnect (seamlessly) and then operate in islanding mode.

The truth of the matter is that remote power systems number in the thousands, with the vast majority being powered up by dumb, dirty diesel generation – hardly a technology platform of relevance to the smart grid and to the fundamental networking advantages of the microgrid platform.

Nevertheless, once distributed renewable energy generation (RDEG) is added to the mix, then these remote systems begin to look like the classic traditional microgrids that have been the focus of most of DOE and U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) funding. The closest analogy to remote microgrids funded by the U.S. government are the so-called “mobile microgrids” deployed at military forward operating bases (FOBs) in Afghanistan and Iraq, and other temporary or remote bases throughout the world. Like other technologies, DOD is now pushing a technology that could offer wide benefits to the society, and in this case, the developing world.

During the 20th century, nearly 90 percent of population growth took place in countries classified as “less developed” by the United Nations – countries in Africa, Asia (except Japan), Latin America and the Caribbean, and Oceania (except Australia and New Zealand). Today, developing countries have approximately 80 percent of the world’s population, but consume only 30 percent of commercially traded energy supplies, making them the top prospective market for remote microgrids. As energy consumption rises with increases in population and living standards, awareness is growing about the environmental costs of energy and the need to expand access to energy – especially cleaner electricity – in new ways.

Perhaps the most compelling market for remote microgrids today is geographic islands, often not connected to a mainland power grid, with existing grids that are often extremely unreliable, inefficient and dependent upon imported fossil fuels. These islands face extreme challenges from an energy security perspective. Pipelines supplying inexpensive and plentiful natural gas are not an option for them. Most of them are completely dependent on liquid fuels derived from petroleum, with the default supply being diesel. With only a few weeks of on-island storage, a supply interruption that delays the oil supply barge becomes an economic and security nightmare.

The decline in solar PV prices is the single largest driver for remote microgrids today on islands and other remote regions, since these generation and distribution systems are now cost-effective even without subsidy.

In terms of village power systems — which average 10 kW in size according to Outback Power Systems — solar PV will be the dominant choice for these remote microgrids located near the equator. For projects closer to either pole, small wind will be the preferred RDEG choice. To date, the results from an Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) survey imply that microgrids are more widely deployed in the more extreme northern and southern latitudes, since wind generation captures the largest share of power supply for the entire world’s microgrid market. Alaska is among the most active global markets for remote microgrids featuring wind/diesel hybrids, which bolsters the U.S. position as the global leader when it comes to commercializing this technology platform. According to HOMER Energy, Alaska and Australia probably have more remote microgrid capacity in current operation that the rest of the world combined. The recent purchase of Powercorp by European industrial giant ABB is a clear sign that there is growing interest in the renewable, remote microgrid space.

Article by Peter Asmus, appearing courtesy the Matter Network.

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About Author

Walter’s contributions to CleanTechies over the past 4 years have been instrumental in growing the publications social media channels via his ongoing editorial and data driven strategies. He is the founder and managing director of Sunflower Tax, a renewable energy tax and finance consultancy based in San Diego, California. Active in the San Diego clean technology community, participating in events sponsored by CleanTech San Diego, EcoTopics, and Cleantech Open San Diego, Walter has also been a presenter at numerous California Center for Sustainability (CCSE) programs. He currently serves as an adjunct professor at the University of San Diego School of Law where he teaches a course on energy taxation and policy.

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