“Islanding” On Islands: Microgrids Set To Bring Affordable Power To Remote Locations Worldwide



With over 1.3 billion people still without electricity and many more lacking access to reliable power, expanding access to energy remains crucial. Overwhelmingly, remote islands have relied on expensive and “dirty” fossil fuels for their energy. While this technology has helped in bringing electricity to millions, it is failing to meet the demands of consumers who require cheaper, cleaner energy, in more remote locations.

To answer this question, energy suppliers are turning to microgrids, and more specifically, renewable-powered systems. Similar to traditional microgrids, they can operate independently or in conjunction with the area’s main electrical grid, but their main benefit is their ability to reliably and continually produce electricity on site. By being able to produce electricity on site, distributed solar photovoltaic (PV) and wind systems reduce or eliminate the need to build traditional utility infrastructure, allowing developing countries to “leapfrog” the early phases of utility construction, dramatically reducing the price of rural electrification.

According to Navigant Research, the global remote microgrid market will expand from 349 megawatts of generation capacity in 2011 to more than 1.1 gigawatts by 2017, with the majority of this growth expected in the developing world. A large portion will also take place in the rapidly developing, and often remote, island nations of the world. These nations are inherently deprived of many resources, sometimes importing 100% of the fuel needed to meet energy demands.

Expected growth in island microgrids can be broken down into three main categories: remote telecom towers, single buildings, and community-size systems. While each system offers clean, affordable, and reliable energy, the intended purpose and resulting system designs are very different.

Remote Islands And Telecoms Towers

Remote telecommunications sites offer one of the fastest-growing and most profitable markets for distributed microgrids. As the mobile phone and smartphone markets continue their robust growth, with much of that growth expected in countries with unreliable power grids, scaling infrastructure to meet this demand poses a new challenge. Increasingly, islands need to deliver affordable yet efficient power to new and existing remote telecoms towers. Currently, most difficult-to-access telecoms sites rely almost exclusively on imported diesel fuel for energy, making them ideal candidates for the autonomous, clean, and reliable energy of distributed microgrids.

The South Pacific telecom giant, OPT, realizing the benefits of such a system, employed both UGE and Self Energy Pacific in the design and installation of a renewable-based microgrid at one of its most remote telecom sites. On the desolate island of Île Ouen in New Caledonia, the definition of “remote” is taken to a new level. The island’s three telecom sites can only be accessed by helicopter, making maintenance visits both expensive and time-consuming.

Charged with the task of designing a self-reliant system, UGE and Self Energy Pacific turned to a combination a solar, wind, and energy storage. Including a 6kW solar array, 1kW EddyGT wind turbine, and 2500Ah battery pack, the system was designed with maximum reliability in mind. Providing both constant uptime and crucial communication, the microgrid system demonstrated its resilient abilities in some of the most dire and testing conditions.

While this is an example of a remote telecom system in the South Pacific, the benefits that it offers can be extrapolated to many a remote region or island. In areas with limited resources and access to infrastructure, the benefits of a renewable microgrid system can boost cell communications, connecting people even in the far reaches of the world.

 

Single Building And Community Size Systems

Facing some of the highest electricity prices in the world, the case for widespread microgrid deployment on islands is extremely strong. According to Mark Crowdis, the president of renewable energy for GBX Associates LLC, “Caribbean Islands can pay anywhere from 36¢ to 66¢/kWh, affecting everything from electricity prices to the cost of food on the island.”

Due to the high price, payback for investing in microgrids is often immediate on islands. These countries already pay such a high premium for their electricity, that switching to a microgrid, especially when on a larger scale, is often cheaper than using the traditional utilities.

Haiti, with one of the lowest GDPs per capita in the world, is devastatingly affected by the costs of energy generation. On the island, most households spend $10 a month on candles and kerosene for lighting, which not only has negative health implications but costs about a third of the average household income. This expenditure is the equivalent to buying electricity at 20 US dollars per kWh in the US. For comparison, New Yorkers currently pay 25 cents per kWh. The high price for electricity makes microgrids both feasible and quite practical in much of the developing world.

Allison Archambault, president of the nonprofit EarthSpark International, sees the application and future possibilities of microgrids on a larger scale. Earthspark installs microgrids, by adding solar PV, battery storage, SCADA, and prepaid metering systems to already existing diesel generators – providing power for nearby homes and businesses. Local service reps set up energy sales contracts for customers and sell LED lighting equipment through Earthspark’s retail subsidiary, Enèji Pwòp. The availability of microgrid electricity allows customers to cut their monthly energy budgets by as much as 80%, and improve their indoor air quality and living standards at the same time. Archambault’s grand plan is to spread microgrids as profitable enterprises across Haiti, providing jobs for Haitian youth and electricity for millions.

Archambault is not alone in her vision of a future run by microgrids. Sir Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, also realizes the under-utilization of resources on island nations worldwide and hopes to put an end to it.

Branson’s private island, Necker Island, is in the process of a total energy overhaul. With the help of NRG Energy, Branson is developing “a renewables-driven microgrid for the entire island, supplying high-quality, reliable electricity powered at least 75% by an integrated array of solar, wind, and energy storage technologies,” according to a release.

Branson is being backed by the Ten Island Renewable Challenge, which aims to transition islands to a 100% renewable energy platform. The challenge, which was devised by the Carbon War Room and the Rocky Mountain Institute, aims to use commercial investment as the main tool in procuring renewable energy technologies for islands, with microgrids being a main focus. With the goal of signing on ten islands by the end of 2014, and the Turks and Caicos Islands signing on most recently, this marks a significant change in mind-set for island nations and their future energy security.

Conclusion

Facing the highest electricity prices in world, affecting everything from food and lighting costs, to the general welfare of their citizens, island nations might have the most to gain in the fight for renewables. Leading this charge is the distributed energy microgrid, promising cleaner, cheaper energy in even the most remote locations. The microgrid is able to function off-the-grid, allowing nations to “leapfrog” the infrastructure costs associated with modern-day utilities. Modern financing options make these systems able to compete on a cost level with even the most basic and traditional fuel types, allowing even the lowest-income countries to purchase and implement these systems, with the potential to bring light to the darkness for millions.