SEATTLE, Washington — Access to electricity has the power to change lives and transform economies. In developing regions of the world, vast swaths of the population lack adequate access to electricity and energy services. To reach these disconnected regions of the countries, often rural, the government will either commission costly and environmentally unfriendly extensions to centralized power grids or send unreliable diesel-powered electrical generators to these desolate areas. Through technological innovation, however, companies and countries have developed sophisticated solutions to such energy distribution problems: sustainable microgrids in Latin America.
Microgrids in Latin America
Microgrids often connect to larger centralized grids but with the key ability to detach and operate autonomously if necessary. In this sense, microgrids are extensions of larger grids with greater and more localized control capabilities.
NYU researchers report that, as opposed to extending a centralized grid network or borrowing generators, microgrids provide sustainable energy to rural communities on a micro-scale while deriving energy from locally abundant renewable resources, such as solar energy and wind.
Centralized electricity grids, particularly in island nations, such as the Caribbean, can be unreliable and extremely vulnerable to environmental damage. Diesel generators as well as imported fossil fuel from mainland exporters can also become delayed or rerouted if storms cut off supply chains, thus leaving dependent nations without power often exaggerating the crisis that initially caused said prevention of energy delivery.
Microgrids on the other hand, due to their localized energy production, are not beholden to foreign exporters of energy and are often easier to manage during storms and environmental crises. When centralized energy grids face environmental danger and destruction, or even when they need basic repairs, entire regions off the grid need to shut down leaving many households and institutions without power even if the highest-risk segment of the grid is only a small area.
Meanwhile, with microgrids, communities are able to simply shut down the small regions of a microgrid most vulnerable to damage while still delivering power to nearby locations. The discovery and repair of utilities are also easier with microgrids due to municipalities’ ability to identify individual generators and regions out of power as opposed to an entire centralized grid network needing to find where the damage is and then deliver repairs which often takes more time. Microgrids are also able to detach from centralized grids if the major grid needs to shut down but the local area still needs to retain power.
Many public-private partnerships are emerging throughout Latin America to address the increased demand for microgrids. As of 2020, Costa Rica signed exclusive partnership deals with Sunshine Energy, a company dedicated to the production of microgrid Value Stream Optimizers (mVSO), software dedicated to optimizing the productivity of microgrid systems throughout Costa Rica. This signifies a dramatic embrace of microgrid technology in a leading Latin American nation. Costa Rica has always been a leader in the clean energy field, with 98.6% of its energy produced from renewable sources in 2018. Alongside Sunshine Energy, Cleanspark will partner with Costa Rica as consultants for the use and regular maintenance of mVOS. These contracts not only increase the production and efficiency of the microgrid energy system but also stimulate economic activity and create jobs throughout the country.
Costa Rica, while simultaneously adopting cutting edge microgrid infrastructure, also claims the lowest poverty rate throughout Central America. This correlation demonstrates a decrease in poverty when nations place the economic wellbeing of their citizens first, particularly when paying attention to the needs of their rural populations. Thus, microgrids empower the poor through both increased connections and decreased costs.
Microgrids are extremely economical in comparison to central grids on the basis of cost. In frontier regions, microgrids produce electricity at a cost range between $0.29 and $0.77 per kilowatt-hour (kWH) as opposed to the central grids’ average pricing for said regions at $1/kWh. There is a direct link between the lower costs of microgrids and the adoption of renewable energy sources for said microgrids. Thus, microgrids not only efficiently deliver power to rural frontier regions but do so at a competitive cost which further empowers the often lower-income residents in rural regions by giving them affordable, renewable and self-sufficient access to energy.
This is particularly vital to Latin America, given that as of 2019, 19.92% of the regional population lives in rural areas, according to the World Bank.
Isle au Haut
One example of further technological innovation and cost reduction possibilities related to microgrids is the case of Isle au Haut. Isle au Haut, an island off of the coast of Maine, entered into a contract to replace its mainland cable setup with a more renewable and sustainable method of energy generation for the island’s roughly 70 permanent residents. The solution was a small-scale solar array of roughly 900 panels and residents could freely add their own panels as desired. The solar units installed come with a special machine learning software created by Introspective Systems which learns each household’s energy use patterns and behaviors and then determines when it is best for each home to buy or sell energy back to the central grid if they own their own panels. Thus, technology like this helps keep costs low, gives greater independence to local energy producers and even converts renewable energy generators into profit generators. If significant remote populations were to adopt this technology, such as within the Latin American region, the cost reductions, energy independence and profit generation capabilities could compound to produce unprecedented economic development throughout Latin America.
The Future of Microgrids
Therefore, sustainable microgrids in Latin America help to empower the poor by expanding access to the internet and electricity to rural regions while delivering such services with lowers costs and greater economic dependability than centralized grids or gasoline-powered generators. Certain developments also show the power of microgrids to turn renewable energy into a profit center for households in rural areas that can generate more than enough electricity by selling the surplus energy back into the central grid system. In these ways, the expansion of microgrids into rural areas throughout Latin America and the developing world is lifting millions of households out of poverty and is giving the gift of energy independence to previously dependent economic regions.
– Ian Hawthorne