Published on November 14th, 2012 | by Jason Louv0
Solar-Powered Microgrids for the Global Poor
Finding Electricity for the 1.5 Billion People Worldwide Who Live in Darkness
When New Yorkers found themselves without power in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, they were experiencing a slice of daily life for much of the developing world: either intermittent power and rolling blackouts, or no access to electricity at all. That’s a problem that might be solved with solar-powered microgrids, proposes the MIT Technology Review.
Worldwide, one and a half billion people lack electricity, most of them rural dwellers. (In India, for example, 268 million people are without electricity in rural areas, but only 21 million in cities.) The International Energy Agency says the type of power plant installed at Batu Laut, known as a hybrid microgrid, will be essential to bringing power to many of them. That’s because connecting a remote community to the conventional power grid, with its large, centralized plants, is expensive and can take more than a decade. In some cases, geography and economics may never permit access to the grid. Hybrid microgrids can provide dependable electricity by intelligently combining power from multiple local sources, and building them is far cheaper and faster than extending the grid to the areas where most of the people without electricity live.
Optimal Power Solutions (OPS), the Australian company that designed the microgrid at Batu Laut, is doubling its installations this year throughout Southeast Asia and India. And several other companies, including industrial giants like GE and ABB, are developing and selling similar technology (see “Microgrid Keeps the Power Local, Cheap, and Reliable”).
The reality, however, is far more complicated. Some early microgrids have run into problems, and the electricity they provide is more expensive than that from central power grids in the city—in some cases nearly 10 times as expensive. The technology involved in microgrids, and the systems used to operate and maintain them, will need to improve significantly if they are to bring reliable power to hundreds of millions of people.
“The forecast by the International Energy Agency and other groups is that in 20 years, we’ll still have a billion and a half people without electricity,” says Daniel Kammen, a professor of energy at the University of California, Berkeley, and an advisor for the United Nations’ Sustainable Energy for All program. “Microgrids provide an opportunity to think about a really new model of how to bring energy services to off-grid communities. The question is, will this just be a cute development thing? Or will it become part of mainstream economics?”