Power grids don’t come cheap: It can cost as much as $300,000 a mile to string a set of high-voltage wires. This can be expensive even in the U.S., but in the developing world the price is often prohibitive to extend traditional grids to small rural communities. Over 1 billion people lack reliable access to electricity, some 600 million people in sub-Saharan Africa alone. There are very real consequences to that lack of access, including poorer healthcare options and less economic opportunity. But now a group of researchers at GE Power and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have come up with a solution: Think smaller.
Specifically, they are thinking about microgrids — small-scale power networks built independently of any larger grid. They can incorporate multiple types of power sources into one reliable local grid. Microgrids also promise to be far more cost-effective, at about $1,200 or less to connect a household. In fact, the International Energy Agency’s “Energy for All” study estimated that mini-grids — defined as “community-based grids that generate and distribute power at the point of consumption” — would be “the cheapest technology for connecting 450 million people, two-thirds of whom live in sub-Saharan Africa.” The study estimates that mini-grids would require “a total investment of about $300 billion between now and 2030, or $20-25 billion every year.”
But before you build such a grid, you have to figure out where exactly to put it — and whether it makes financial sense. The GE Power and MIT researchers are utilizing big data to identify cost-effective ways to install distributed power with microgrids. They use software to layer population data, existing grid information, natural-resource surveys, satellite-sourced topography data and other variables to optimize the cost and benefit of either extending an existing electrical grid or constructing a microgrid. “We’re replacing a huge amount of human effort that would have been required to do the designs quasi-optimally using common rule-of-thumb approaches that have been in practice,” says Robert Stoner, deputy director for science and technology at the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) and the co-lead researcher on the data side of the project, called the Reference Electrification Model (REM).
REM creates unique power plans specific to a location. It can pick the least expensive energy source, such as solar power where there’s sufficient sunshine or hydropower near a reliable water source. It can even create a detailed project plan, down to how many wires need to run to which buildings — information vital to effective project budgeting and planning. “The idea that you can create a coherent, optimal plan and program that includes grid extension, microgrids and standalone systems that is attractive to the private sector is new,” Stoner says. “The use of geospatial packages like REM is becoming widely accepted, and that is exciting.”
GE and MIT are now involved in a World Bank-sponsored project to put REM into practice in Nigeria. Early findings in one state, Sokoto, indicate that under certain assumptions, of the 1,500 sites in need of electrification, 85 percent will be more economical to electrify with microgrid systems. These sites include Soron Yamma Alela, a village of 384 people that currently relies on rechargeable batteries charged from diesel generators for intermittent access. The Nigerian government is using GE and MIT’s research to design a 172-kilowatt solar-power system in the village with energy storage that will use 18 kilometers of cabling and poles to connect its 273 homes and five businesses to 24-hour electricity. This and other microgrid efforts around the country will boost Nigeria’s effort to expand electrical access almost 23 percent by 2020, to 75 percent of the nation. “Power is foundational to all services, whether it’s irrigating fields, storing food overnight or powering medical devices,” says Ricky Buch, commercial director of energy access and hybrid distributed power at GE Power.
GE has committed $7.5 million and technological and personnel resources to four of MITEI’s Low-Carbon Energy Centers to advance research and development in key technology areas for meeting future energy needs: solar energy, energy storage, electric power systems, and carbon capture utilization and storage. The partnership has already tested REM in India, working with local authorities to connect communities in and around the Ganges River that weren’t reachable by traditional grid. Nigeria, which is much less densely settled outside its cities than India, is an excellent candidate for proving the practicality of distributed microgrids in Africa, Buch says.
It wouldn’t be the first example of Africa successfully leapfrogging traditional sprawling infrastructure demands. Distributed telecommunications — mobile phones — has ownership rates on par with the U.S. in many sub-Saharan African countries, while landlines serve just 2 percent of households, according to the Pew Research Center. The potential is there for microgrids to bring electricity to Africans on a similar scale.
It also means cleaner power replacing much of the informal power networks created around the continent. Such systems typically rely on diesel fuel, which has high transportation costs and inherent risks in addition to poor environmental consequences. Buch says there are gigawatts of jerry-rigged diesel power usage in sub-Saharan Africa.
“Microgrids are nascent, and there’s some belief at the policy level that they are somehow inferior to expanding the traditional grid,” Buch says. “We are trying to show that these microgrids are actually quite capable of providing 24/7 power, and more economically — that there’s a new way of doing things.”