FreeWord – Off-Grid Renewables: The green Route to 100% Electricity Access

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Hi folks, it’s FreeWord time! How are off-grid energy challenges being addressed? Let’s dive in.

As of today, access to electricity goes without a saying in most parts of the world. Therefore it may come as a surprise that 16% of the world’s population, an estimated 1.2 billion people, were still living without this basic necessity back in 2017. Lack of electricity or energy poverty is the ultimate economic barrier for these areas to access participation in the modern economy. Local renewable energy generation solutions are essential to provide low-cost sustainable energy to all, especially those consumers who are expected to be isolated from national or regional grids in the foreseeable future. What are the solutions to provide reliable electricity to rural households or island communities off the primary grid then?

Unsurprisingly, energy poverty disproportionately impacts hard on rural Africans; roughly 600 million people were still without access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa in 2018. Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy, had an electrification rate of just 54% back in 2017. Thus, nonexistent and unreliable electricity isn’t just an issue confined to rural Africa, since most of the countries with the lowest levels of electricity access have rural-majority populations

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Recent Developments

Off-grid renewable energy solutions have emerged into the mainstream and support the expansion of access to modern energy services in a timely and environmentally sustainable manner. This, combined with recent years of energy access policies towards renewables, has led to tremendous development. In 2018, the number of people without access to electricity dropped from 1.2 billion in 2017 to 860 million. India continued to make remarkable progress in a short amount of time, with almost 100 million people gaining access in 2018 alone. Many other Asian countries have also seen significant improvements, particularly in Indonesia and Bangladesh. The development spotlight takes place mainly in Africa at the moment, though.

Unreliability of a Centralized Grid

Regardless of location, when there is a national electrical grid, instability is a problem. Thus, the poorest countries suffer the most – a survey found that a majority of Nigerian tech firms face 30 or more power outages per month. More than half of those firms described electricity as a “major” or “severe” constraint to doing business. This is a pattern that is repeated in a number of developing countries. By adding, or in particular, replacing the centralized national grid with off-grid renewables increases the flexibility of how our electricity system functions. This, in turn, modifies the energy system to be more efficient and reliable. For the people who are still unable to fully participate in the modern world, these innovations can’t come soon enough.

Different Types and Energy Storage

Photovoltaics (PV) – is a method of generating electrical power by converting solar radiation into direct current electricity using semiconductors that exhibit the photovoltaic effect. Photovoltaic power generation employs solar panels composed of a number of solar cells. PV’s are one of the most popular energy solutions for off-grid buildings. The system includes charge controllers, inverters, and rapid shutdown controls.

Wind turbines – use the air currents flowing across the earth’s surface as a source of energy. This mechanical force can be used for specific tasks, or it’s converted into electricity via a generator. Wind turbines come in several sizes, with small-scale models providing power to a small number of homes within a community.

Micro-hydro – uses rivers water flow to spin turbines. The mechanics are similar to wind turbines. Micro-hydro is an excellent off-grid choice to power homes and small communities when water is abundant. 

Hybrid Energy Systems – many off-grid communities create hybrid energy systems to protect against intermittency problems and system failures. They combine RE’s such as solar PV and wind, with more constant sources of power like micro-hydros. This ensures continuous power for an off-grid community, and building hybrid systems is more cost-effective than extending grids to isolated communities.

Wave and tidal energy – can be a great choice if the household or community is located in a coastal area. Thus, this requires a more specific knowledge/investment compared to other methods.

Batteries – when renewable energy sources produce energy that is not currently needed, electricity is usually directed to charge a battery. This solves intermittent issues arising from the production of discontinuous renewable energy sources and allows for variations in building loads. Common batteries are lead-acid and lithium-ion batteries.

The Solution: Microgrids

A microgrid is a localized, small-scale power grid that can operate autonomously or collaboratively with other small power grids and has been found to be more cost-effective than extending transmission power lines to the existing electricity grid. Thus, microgrids are usually attached to a centralized national network and are a type of subsystem that is connected to the general grid at a single point. This connection acts as a switch that allows the microgrid to be disconnected from the public grid (in case of power failure, etc.) and enables it to operate temporarily in island mode. In addition, microgrids don’t just have the ability to bring electricity to new markets; they can also replace the diesel-powered generators commonly used in rural areas. Microgrids can strengthen grid resilience, help mitigate grid disruption, and act as a grid resource for faster system response and recovery. In addition, microgrids help communities to become energy independent and environmentally friendly.

Conclusion

The recent pandemic has brought to light how important decentralization is. Centralized supply chains have revealed their vulnerabilities, and the same applies to the production of our electricity. Further off-grid development requires people to wake up. Off-grid renewables’ role in the future energy system is inevitable, and this transition velocity is up to us. Off-grid renewables are the solution to our environmental and economic sustainability.


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