“Power for the People”—How Solar Mini-Grids Help the Disadvantaged
Electricity is a fundamental lifeblood of our 21st century lives—and few of us could imagine living without it. With electricity fulfilling such a huge part of our daily needs, we often expect it to be provided by large, powerful energy companies operating on state sponsored infrastructure. But the need for such companies to compete economically and provide huge amounts of power often means they resort to the cheapest—and dirtiest—methods of doing so.
However, changes are afoot. The reduced cost and increased efficiency of renewable technologies means people can now uncouple their power supply from the energy giants. Across the globe, communities are banding together to create their own energy networks, or mini-grids.
What is a Mini-Grid?
A mini-grid is a miniaturized version of the national grids which power our countries. Often, they are separate from the main grid and are designed to serve specific homes or communities. Since they are not required to power entire cities or states, they have much lower energy generation requirements and come in a series of shapes and sizes. Some may power dozens of homes, while others could potentially power thousands.
In theory, a mini-grid could be powered by any power source, but the lower energy demands of mini-grids also makes them ideal for renewable energy, such as solar and wind. By taking advantage of such technologies, communities across the world, including underserved ones, can benefit. In particular, mini-grids can help to provide electricity to isolated rural communities or make life more affordable for neighborhoods in bustling metropolises.
One of the most common forms of mini-grid is the “community solar project.” This involves groups of households coming together to purchase solar arrays on a larger scale. Participants within the mini-grid can either pay for part of the array and receive their contribution back in energy credits (reducing their energy bills) or join a subscription-based system.
The subscription model is much more common and is like a traditional energy contract. Homes within a certain radius of a community solar project can subscribe to the mini-grid and receive clean electricity from it. With this approach, the subscriber does not own any part of the mini-grid themselves but helps maintain it with their payments. This is great for renters or for people whose homes are impractical for their own solar panels.
This differs from a normal “green power program” which has also become increasingly popular. With green power programs, homeowners can elect to receive a larger share of their power from renewable energies. There is a common misconception that green power programs provide power directly from renewable sources. Instead, they merely include a larger proportion of green energy within their mix. Of course, these companies still function on a for-profit basis, and their green energy is often priced as a premium product. Within a renewably sourced mini-grid, the electricity is usually provided at a hefty discount.
As well as being potentially cleaner and cheaper, mini-grids provide other benefits. By being positioned geographically closer to their end users, mini-grids can generate and transfer power at a lower voltage, without needing to “step down” the electricity to a distribution voltage. Often power is lost in this process, and it also requires extensive infrastructure such as power cables and substations. All this needs additional land, expenses, and equipment insulated with sulfur hexafluoride—a potent greenhouse gas.
Power for the Disadvantaged
However, mini-grids are not simply a money-saving project for middle class, environmentally conscious suburban communities. Localized, clean power has the potential to benefit hugely different people across the globe. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, by 2016, around 133 million people were served by off-grid renewables, with about 2.1 million people connected to solar mini-grid networks. Growth was especially large in the Global South. Between 2008 and 2016, mini-grid users tripled to nearly 9 million across Asia and grew six-fold to 1.3 million across Africa.
Central to mini-grids' potential is their ability to electrify previously off-grid communities, such as rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa. Many of these communities rely on fossil fuel generators or other dirty sources for electricity, which are expensive, unhealthy, and require logistical efforts. Even if communities are connected to national grids, there is often not enough power to go around, resulting in blackouts. Mini-grids can help bolster these communities with cheap, clean energy. For example, projects such as SolShare in Bangladesh have used “Internet of Things” devices to connect separate solar arrays into one complete network. This allows the surplus generated to be sent to other households, even if they do not own a panel themselves.
Other digital technologies are also being used to better develop mini-grids. Organizations such as Village Data Analytics have been using satellite imagery and machine learning algorithms to identify rural African villages which could most benefit from mini-grid electrification. Their platform can spot buildings, identify markets and hospitals, and generally direct renewable energy companies to the best spots for mini-grid installation. Information about such communities is often lacking even within their own national governments.
But some of the world’s most developed cities can also benefit. For example, in New York City community solar projects have been established in traditionally deprived neighborhoods to offset living costs. The Solar One project aims to add solar panels to residential buildings in underserved districts of the city. The money saved from the mini-grid will then be used to subsidize free high-speed Wi-Fi for the residents, around 16 percent of which lack an internet connection. The recent coronavirus pandemic has laid bare the impact this “digital divide” can have on education and opportunities.
But there are challenges to mini-grids. Starting and expanding local projects often requires expensive equipment, such as batteries and smart power management software, which can lead to high initial costs. Despite their grassroots nature, mini-grids often require capital from investment groups to get off the ground. Although platforms, such as the UK’s Community Energy England, exist to make things simpler, access to finance is still one of the major hurdles. Another hurdle is regulatory. Developing a mini-grid comes with a plethora of bureaucratic and technical specifications to ensure the safety of the mini-grid. Although such specifications are often streamlined for developing nations, existing regulations can put off potential users and increase the cost, or risk to mini-grid investors.
But what is clear is that the world is on the cusp of an energy revolution. Instead of being passive consumers of anonymous power coming through wall sockets, many consumers are now mobilizing to ensure they benefit from cleaner and more ethical electricity. If nothing else, the spread of mini-grid shows that the stranglehold of major power companies can be broken to the benefit of all, especially disadvantaged communities. In a way, they can literally provide “power to the people.”
*Mark Newton is a Berlin-based freelance journalist and researcher originally from the UK. After specializing in conflict and security studies, he has recently shifted his focus towards sustainability and environmental concerns.