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Going solar, going micro

by Rocky Mountain Institute

Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere. Only 25 percent of the 10.3 million people in the country have access to electricity, but one nonprofit organization is testing a solution that could not only change the lives of the un-electrified in Haiti, but also could be a model of how to bring electricity to the 1.2 billion people in the world still living in the dark.

EarthSpark International has built a 93-kilowatt solar-powered microgrid in the small town of Les Anglais (pop. 3,000 in the “downtown” area), which currently supplies clean reliable power to about 2,000 people.

Why a microgrid? Haiti has more than 30 existing municipal microgrids, but most of them do not work, and even when they do function they run on diesel and operate just a few hours a day, a few days a week. EarthSpark’s goal was to provide people with 24-hour clean, affordable electricity.

EarthSpark began working in Haiti providing people with small solar home systems and solar lanterns, products that are life-changing tools for people without access to grid electricity. But the organization soon realized that those are not the solutions to which everyone aspires.

“To truly unlock economic opportunity, people need access to higher levels of electricity than what a solar home system can provide,” Allison Archambault, president of EarthSpark International, told the Rocky Mountain Institute.

Eric Wanless, a principal with RMI, says: “With the right conditions mini-grids can provide energy services in a low-cost sweet spot between small levels of energy consumption that can be effectively served by small standalone solar systems and traditional grid extension.”

EarthSpark is not the only group focusing on microgrids. Husk Power has brought electricity to 200,000 people in the highly un-electrified state of Bihar in India, using rice husks to fuel microgrids; Powerhive, Devergy and PowerGen are bringing power to East Africa with solar microgrids; and Gham Power is building solar microgrids in rural Nepal.

A microgrid can give residences and businesses enough power to run motors, process agricultural products and power freezers. Plus, much of the electricity used by rural industry is seasonal, such as an agricultural mill, which is used during harvest season and on market days.

“Building an energy system just for that mill would mean an asset that is under-utilized much of the time,” says Archambault. “But with a microgrid, you can use that capacity for other uses, and everyone buys down the cost for everyone else. We like to say our system is powerful enough to energize industry, and progressive enough to serve every single customer.”

There are technical challenges to widespread adoption of microgrids, as well as logistical, regulatory and legal challenges. Still, EarthSpark’s goal is to build 80 microgrids in the next five years, bringing power to more than 200,000 people, a small dent in the 7 million Haitians still living without access to electricity. But for those 200,000 people, it is a game changer and, along with other players in the space, could unlock huge opportunities for rural communities around the world.

 

Excerpted from a Rocky Mountain Institute report titled Changing Lives with Solar Microgrids. The full report can be read at this link: http://bit.ly/2dUpmAs

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