Extending The Reach Of Solar Nanogrids In India With Energy Storage

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By Ken Munson

Most of the discussion about the role of storage and customer-sited generation revolves around consumers who have ready access to the grid. For them, the move to renewable generation and intelligent storage is all about reducing their reliance on the grid, their energy cost, and their carbon footprint.

India rooftop solar shutterstock_245216242It’s easy to forget how much impact storage and renewable generation can have on the daily lives of people who have no grid access at all. As this story in Wired points out, in India there are 300 million people who aren’t connected to the grid, representing about a quarter of such people in the world. A similar number of India’s residents fare little better, with only intermittent access to power.

This creates serious challenges for a huge population. First, it threatens their health, because of the lung diseases that stem from breathing particulates in the smoke from cooking and heating fires. Second, lack of electricity harms education, because with little nighttime lighting children have less time to read and do homework. Even a basic mobile phone or Internet connection remains out of reach without power, and that means no access to the banking system or the information on the Internet that would let these people participate fully in the economy.

To its credit, as India’s population continues to grow and its economy undergoes rapid industrialization, the country is taking steps toward a significant increase in its energy output. The government has dedicated considerable spending to build up its power generation, transmission and distribution infrastructure, and has set a target of 30-50 GW of new wind capacity and 20-30 GW of solar capacity by 2020. India’s Telecom Regulatory Authority now requires the use of renewable energy in place of costly, polluting diesel to provide power to the nation’s 650,000 telecommunications towers. Given that fuel represents about 40% of the operating cost of those towers it should be no surprise that, in 2013, the industry placed $300 million worth of orders for solar alternatives.

But even this level investment is unlikely to create a system that reaches throughout the country: It’s just too costly and difficult to build the connections between large-scale generation plants and the thousands of scattered, isolated rural villages where the off-grid live.

Individual PV panels installed in those communities can provide a partial solution and allow individual residents or villages to generate their own electricity. Entrepreneurs around the country are doing just that, installing a modest solar panel and a small storage battery that can power a light and charge a mobile phone, Using government-supported financing, it’s possible to replace kerosene lighting with solar and have villagers pay the same monthly cost.

That is only an interim solution, however. If you instead install more robust solar arrays, plus the kind of utility-grade storage that’s common in the US, along with a basic Internet connection (or a community network connection like a wireless mesh network), suddenly you can create a nanogrid. You’ve built a virtual power plant for that community, even though it won’t have a connection to the grid.

Compared to the cost of a more traditional approach, solar and storage is far less expensive and easier to implement. So while extending the existing grid to rural villages may never be affordable, providing reliable electric power across rural India is technically possible and far more economical. In fact, with the proper financing made available, 7.2 million Indian households in the five most under-connected states would be able to afford at least a modest home solar installation by 2018.

But rural residents aren’t the only people in India who can benefit from solar and storage.

Because of its rapid growth, India’s role in reducing global climate change is becoming as crucial as that of China and the United States. Unfortunately, coal is the cheapest and seemingly most likely fuel source for this growth, pitting climate change and growth needs against each other. With a concerted effort to install solar and storage in homes and small businesses, however, clean local generation could be aggregated into VPPs of sufficient scale to meet the needs of large areas. This would obviate the need for building that generation capacity in the form of large coal-fired plants, a likely approach given India’s cheap coal reserves.

We believe that both of these goals – rural electric access and solar in place of coal – are important for India. The issues that remain are not technical, but rather involve how to make the costs pencil out for utilities or other partners in India. It’s not an easy problem to solve, and may well require some kind of public/private partnership, not unlike the support given in the US and other developed countries to spur the installation of customer-sited solar power.

Regardless of how it’s accomplished, it’s vital that this deployment happen sooner rather than later. Planners need to incorporate the capacity of customer-sited solar into the calculation for large power station capacity, and budgets need to be set aside to allow nanogrid development.

In fact, it’s important for us (and the industry) to create working partnerships in other developing countries. India may be the largest in terms of population and economy, but there are billions of people today denied the benefits of electric power. For the sake of our economy, our environment and the human condition, we need to extend the reach of the nanogrid.

Ken Munson is Co-founder & CEO of San Francisco-based energy storage company Sunverge Energy.

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