When Bigger Isn't Better: Expanding Access to Electricity with Microgrids

Our modern society is a thoroughly electric one. Maybe you’re using lights and appliances in the home, communicating instantly with friends and family, or reading an engaging and informative yet appropriately humorous blog post on the internet. So much of our daily lives are dependent on electric power. But not everyone has the privilege of electricity and all that it offers. Here’s a shocking statistic for you: more than 1 billion people around the world don’t have access to reliable electricity. 95% of these population live in sub-Saharan Africa and Asia, often in rural and/or geographically isolated areas where it is considered too costly or inefficient to extend existing electric networks. But there is an emerging alternative that has powerful potential to meet these needs: the microgrid.

A “small” part of the solution

Around the world, a growing number of people are powering their lives with energy systems known as microgrids. Microgrids (also minigrids) are local, independent electrical networks that can power a community using a diverse set of energy sources. A microgrid can serve as an oasis of electricity in an otherwise powerless desert. Communities powered by a microgrid don’t have to be connected to the established, massive electrical networks that power so much of the developed world.

There are plenty of organizations dedicated to bringing electricity to remote communities through the power of microgrids. For example, the Berkeley, CA-based group Powerhive works throughout Kenya, helping remote communities build microgrid systems and manage them with a slick cloud-based software program. Their team works on and off-site to support their customers through every step of microgrid development, deployment, and operation. They plan to expand their coverage to more than 200,000 households across Kenya, and continuing to focus on connecting under-served populations to electricity.

Not your grandparents’ grid

Besides providing greater access to energy, microgrids have some distinct advantages over larger power networks:

  1. Utilizing Renewables - Microgrids more effectively utilize sources of renewable energy, which makes them better for the environment and better equipped to take advantage of local resources (sun, wind, geothermal energy). Microgrids can nimbly switch between multiple sources of power, so they are better at pairing the consistency of something like geothermal or methane-capture power with more variable sources like wind or solar power. “Macro” grids don’t have this same flexibility, making it harder to generate power from renewables.
  2. Efficiency - Microgrids deliver electricity more efficiently because the network is operating on a compact, local scale. Larger grids must distribute energy over longer distances, sometimes losing up to two-thirds of the power generated in transmission and distribution.
  3. Resiliency - Microgrids are more resilient – they can get back online quickly after a disruption, and do a better job shifting power to crucial services like hospitals and water treatment facilities if necessary. Recent blackouts caused by the destruction of Hurricanes Irma and Maria underscore our need for more resilient electrical networks. Microgrids can also be connected to larger grids, providing communities with even more resiliency from outages and serving as a generation source for the whole grid.

Power for all

Access to electricity is crucial for developing healthy and prosperous communities by powering schools, businesses, hospitals, clean water facilities, food storage, and so much more. With consistent electricity, people don’t have to rely on kerosene lamps for light, disposable batteries to power appliances, and traditional stoves or open fires for cooking, activities that negatively impact human health and the environment. We need to power the lives and livelihoods of more people on Earth with stable, clean energy, especially as human populations continue to grow. Microgrids will be integral to expanding access to electricity in a greener, more efficient, and more resilient way.

Photo Credits: powerhive, Berkeley Lab