micro-grids: powering the future
Electric power has decentralized as renewable energy has become more accessible to everyone. More people are using micro-grids to power a small location. They allow individuals or organizations to power their homes, communities, and businesses and be independent from utility providers. In the United States alone, the micro-grid market will be $20 billion by the year 2020, which is up from around $4 billion in 2013.
Some of the systems that micro-grids use include: solar (mostly PV) power, diesel and gas generators, wind power, fuel cells, and other storage systems (mostly various forms of batteries; see renewable energy storage). Gas generators will continue to be used as the cost of renewable energy becomes more affordable, and access to it is more widespread. It is common for individuals or organizations to use hybrid systems for their micro-grids. The efficiency of micro-grids depends on the advancement of battery storage technology. Battery storage plays an important role to a micro-grid.
A micro-grid is ideal to provide power in hard to reach locations. Telecom towers can also get consistent power with the use of a micro-grid. A micro-grid is perfect for off-grid third world applications. It is much more affordable than constructing a power plant for a remote village.
Single buildings such as hospitals, fire stations, and schools, can benefit from micro-grids especially during times of disasters when the power grid is shut down. In the United States, this was seen during Hurricane Sandy; Princeton and NYU remained with power due to their micro-grids while the rest of the power grid was down.
Micro-grids spread across Africa
Communities in developing countries (such as India and countries in Africa), especially those in remote locations, benefit from the deployment of micro-grids. As African nations push for rural electrification, they look to micro-grids as a solution to the problem. Micro-grids that use renewable energy are more cost effective and safer compared to diesel generators and kerosene, that are widely used in Africa today. Kerosene often uses up to 20% of an average African's income, can cause fires, and unhealthy air quality.
A medium-sized solar power system with battery storage, on other hand, can be easily used by over 50 households, an entire village, in many rural locations in Africa. Smaller, individual units, can power single, or a few, households. The power can be used for lighting, cell phone charging, cooking, etc...
Micro-grids are important for remote communities in Africa. Electrification of rural villages has been made possible through them. Power needed for water pumping, and purification, is done with the help of various micro-grids in Africa and other parts of the world. Mobile communication has a wider reach in the continent through telecom towers that are powered with micro-grids.
Micro-grids are cheaper than building power lines into forests and mountains, especially in the most remote locations in Africa. Poor communities in other third world countries will also benefit from having micro-grids installed, especially when the utility grids don’t want to build long power lines to connect them to the grid.
Many African rural communities have already built micro-grids as their energy source. Every time a new installation is made, the skill base of the locals is developed. Their infrastructure is improved as well. However, despite the recent momentum of micro-grids, one of the reasons there are not enough micro-grids in Africa is because of the prohibitive cost and lack of reasonable financing. Policy is needed to ensure that they are more affordable to the poor, remote villages in the continent.
One reason the development of micro-grids is slower than it could be, is that utilities don’t want to connect with them because they take away business. Microgrids represent a better alternative: they are not subject to market price fluctuations, they use of renewable energy, micro-grids are reliable energy sources that keep running when the grid goes down, they represent back-up energy with storage, etc...
Overall though, society is already ready for micro-grids. Developed and third world countries can benefit from this type of system, especially as resources become scarce and climate change becomes a reality. There are some utility providers that are becoming less reluctant in supporting micro-grids. Some see it as a practical way to provide resiliency of energy, back-up power, during natural disasters. Small utilities also welcome the decentralizing of the power grid because it removes the monopoly of a single provider.