Contributed by Amanda Winstead
The growth of a community and its overall health are almost fully dependent on its available resources and its ability to manage them. Necessary services like the production of clean, fresh water, the provision of healthcare services, and the ability to provide light and heat in domiciles and schools all require a grid infrastructure that can process and distribute energy reliably.
The responsibility for providing or regulating this infrastructure often falls on local or centralized governments. National and international governmental bodies like the EU decide how and where resources are allocated, funding the construction of power plants, water treatment centers, and other vital community fixtures according to their perception of public need. Governments are meant to act as a support system for the people, providing the things that citizens need and in turn, having the power to enact change.
However, in underserved rural areas, the reality is that many communities do not have the resources of larger institutions or reliable energy grids at their beck and call. The reasons for such conditions are as diverse and varied as the many countries where this is a problem, and what it boils down to is simple: rural citizens often need to act on their own. Without an energy infrastructure framework in place to support their community, issues like disease, polluted water, and unsafe pregnancies are all too common in rural areas around the globe.
Powering ahead to 2030, rural communities need a way to resolve these issues, to build a resilient framework all their own. Enter the microgrid.
Microgrids: Building resilience
Microgrids are, in a nutshell, local electricity grids that serve small populations, often powered by renewable resources and able to function independently from a larger network. Constructing a microgrid allows rural communities to harness natural resources in their area – such as running water, solar power, or wind — to create a self-sustaining, independent power network. The community as a whole can then use the resultant energy as a springboard for progress, meeting needs previously unmet by a larger governmental entity all on their own.
Let us share some examples of microgrids in action to demonstrate their power and versatility:
- Cambodia: In 2000, less than 7% of Cambodians had access to a reliable source of power. With decentralized, solar-based microgrids, now almost 100% of Cambodia has access to constant, clean energy, even in low-income communities.
- Japan: Some rural villages in Japan, such as one in Fukushima, have access to local hot springs. In Fukushima, they built a microgrid that channeled the geothermal energy of the springs to provide power after being devastated by an earthquake. The town is now thriving, and money from the plant goes toward meeting the community’s other needs.
- Yemen: As a result of a prolonged humanitarian crisis, many of the Yemeni people have struggled to meet their basic needs. This changed with the implementation of solar-powered microgrids, which have provided power to healthcare facilities that distribute much-needed aid to the community.
As global humanitarian incidents, natural disasters, and an impending climate crisis continue to throw a wrench in the works of centralized governments, microgrids are a way for the community to see their own needs met. A technology of the future, microgrids promise a climate-safe, sustainable, and inexpensive way for rural communities to harness their own resources and meet their communal needs.
Careful planning and consideration
It should be said, though, as you’re considering embracing microgrid technology, that it is by no means infallible. In Sub-Saharan Africa, for example, 60% of local microgrids failed some months after they were installed, usually as a result of lack of maintenance and widespread community rejection.
Top-down approaches that do not account for the voice of the larger community all but doom microgrid implementation to failure. Additionally, failing to have an experienced maintenance staff on hand, overloading the grid, or lacking adequate security measures can also cause obstacles that will kill your microgrid before it takes off.
Overcoming these challenges will take careful planning and consideration, and you’ll want to treat it like a competitive business project. Creating and tracking KPIs like energy output, maximum capacity, and community feedback will help you keep a pulse on how your microgrid is serving your community, and allow you to adjust before small failures become critical.
Open communication is also very much necessary. Consider arranging a meeting with stakeholders outlining your plans for the grid, then having a town hall with members of your community. Helping others understand why a microgrid is necessary and how it will meet their needs will encourage adoption and prevent unnecessary tampering.
Meeting community needs
Once your microgrid is set up and the community is on board, you can then focus on using the accumulated power to resolve longstanding community concerns. For example, perhaps many residents in your area are worried about air pollution and would like to see more electric vehicle charging stations.
The cost of electricity at a charging station varies based on the local cost of electricity, and charging stations can be hard to find. The microgrid could go toward addressing this issue by making it more feasible to install low-cost charging stations in convenient locations.
At the same time, many communities may need to address more overarching concerns first. While lower-lift concerns like powering lighting can be resolved immediately, choose one larger pain point to focus on initially, such as healthcare, and invest in it.
This is where tracking comes into play, as you will need to be able to see the networking web of results from your investment. A lot of community concerns are tied together, and resolving one can impact another; for example, providing oral healthcare services can improve the health of pregnancies. Healthcare is so deeply tied to a wide variety of issues that, as you start using your microgrid, I recommend you start by improving your healthcare infrastructure — you might not be able to guess offhand how many smaller concerns investing in healthcare can address.
With community support and a bounty of renewable energy resources on hand, you might be surprised at how quickly quality of life improves.