Availability, affordability and productive utilization of electricity, which help create jobs and give people the means to earn regular income, are essential for ensuring the reduction of poverty. Combined with critical energy services for lighting, cooking and drinking water, they help create humane living conditions. Cheap and abundant fossil fuels have enabled “developed countries” to industrialize and propel their living standards to unprecedented levels. For decades, the famous curve showing “GDP vs. per capita power consumption” of countries has been one of the pillars of economic policies of all nations, from which most of humankind has benefited to a greater or lesser degree. Unfortunately, a very large proportion of people living in villages in developing countries have not shared in the social and economic benefits of the development process. CO2 emissions from ever-increasing global consumption of fossil fuels have led to a continuous rise in the average temperature of our planet, which is beginning to destabilize the equilibrium of natural forces which determine our climate and living conditions. For many countries, including India, the problems of the “Energy trilemma” are compounded by the time pressure on action needed to limit the rise in global temperature. Continuing to depend very heavily on coal for power generation and oil for mobility is no longer the ideal option for India, which further exacerbates the problem of accelerating the social and economic development of villages.
As a part of the Fichtner Group, which has long recognized the importance of renewable energy, Fichtner India, which has been a leading consultant for large fossil fuel-based power plants in India, has recognized that decentralized power generation with renewable sources of energy and the local distribution of that power will increasingly play a role in the future power systems of India and other developing countries. It therefore decided to lend support to “PV-based Tiny Grids”, a pilot project of DESI Power Foundation, a not-for-profit trust which builds, tests and operationalizes renewable energy projects for electricity generation and utilization for bottom-of-the-pyramid households and local enterprises.
What is a Tiny Grid?
A Tiny Grid is a small decentralized consumer-linked power system (1.2 – ca. 10 kWp) which provides reliable power for some of the preferred basic needs of nearby consumers for household usage, pumping of irrigation and drinking water, charging of mobile phones and e-vehicles, and running of small enterprises such as shops, agro-processing units, computer centers, and other similar businesses. It services areas that have no or only unreliable power supply from the grid and may not be linked to a microgrid covering a limited part of the village.
Tiny Grids can provide electricity for preferred basic needs of small consumers in villages which may have grid supply with irregular and bad quality power supply and/or a microgrid with limited coverage.
Tiny Grid: PV panels, batteries and inverter, mobile charging
Tiny Grid customers: household
Tiny Grid customers: small village enterprises
Tiny Grid customers: farmers using irrigation water from mobile pumps
Tiny Grid: training villagers and familiarizing pre-school children
Experience and Conclusions
35 Tiny Grids were built as pilot projects in 2016-17 in 20 villages to optimize designs and hardware costs and gain experience in erection, commissioning and O&M by villagers trained by DESI Mantra Training Centre. The financing was provided jointly through investments by DESI Power and DESI Power Foundation and grants from the REPIC Platform of the Swiss Government and the CSR fund of Fichtner India. Engineers from DESI Power Foundation were given refresher training by engineers from Fichtner India who reviewed the designs and visited the sites to get first-hand experience of building and running projects in villages which lack local infrastructure, trained manpower and easy access to spares and after-sales services. Fichtner India helped in drawing up design guidelines for Tiny Grids covering battery sizing calculations, inverter selection and PV capacity sizing. Hardware problems in some of the selected inverters and inadequate after-sales service provided by the suppliers have necessitated the modification of procurement specifications for future projects. Adoption of IT and communication technologies for data collection and diagnostics has helped enormously in optimizing future systems. A review of the operational experience of the AC Tiny Grids showed once again the critical importance of the training of villagers, but it also became clear that local operators of Tiny Grids will need hand-holding services from DESI Power for quite some time after taking over the responsibility. Experience has also shown that designs should include additional features to prevent users from overloading the electrical system, and digital revenue collection and fault-reporting systems should be introduced to reduce costs.
The pilot project has established the design of Tiny Grids and provided reliable field data on their costs and operational reliability. An unexpected advantage of Tiny Grids emerged during the very heavy floods in 2017 when most of their electrical systems could be lifted to higher ground before they were damaged, and many of them became the sole source of power during this period, supplying lighting and clean drinking water.
Fichtner India is now supporting DESI Power Foundation to package Tiny Grid-linked Business Units for agro-processing, energy and water services and other small income generating rural enterprises in India. Even in the present electricity scenario when centralized grid power (which will continue to be very much coal-based in the coming decades) is available in villages at subsidized rates for long hours, there is a demand for reliable and good quality electricity for energy services in households, schools, health and computer centers and shops, as well as for larger productive loads in the farming and non-farming sectors that create jobs and increase local incomes. Lack of sustained flow of capital in rural areas for such productive and social enterprises is, however, a major problem in all developing countries that is preventing rural electrification programs, be they grid-connected or decentralized micro-grid ones, from becoming profitable. CO2-free Tiny Grids offer one small module of a still-to-emerge sustainable electricity sector in developing countries which can service the bottom-of-the-pyramid villagers in meeting some of their minimum needs without waiting for major changes in national energy and climate policies.
This blog was co-authored by Mr. Rupam Konwar (DESI Power), Mr. Aklavya Sharan (DESI Power) as well as Mr. Karuppiah Arunachalam (Fichtner India) who appears as this blog’s author.