A few electrons can go a long way. We have an insatiable appetite for new juice in industrialized economies: Energy use will likely double between 1990 and 2035, reports the Energy Information Administration. But in parts of the developing world, just getting any power to turn on the lights or charge a cell phone is the problem. Nearly one-fifth of the world will still be without electricity by 2030, while the number of "energy poor" stay virtually unchanged. That depressing statistic led to an idea that is bringing light and energy to rural villages once with neither.
Solar microgrids are community-wide distributed power systems consisting of a few solar panels, batteries, wires, and poor yet paying customers. Whereas national power grids are monstrously complex and expensive, running into the trillions to build and maintain, microgrids can cost very little and be deployed in a few weeks or months.
For remote communities, where energy infrastructure or a regular fuel supply is not due to arrive for decades, solar microgrids may be the difference between electricity and a lifetime of expensive, polluting keresone. The power is already flowing in India.
Mera Gao Power is building out the country’s first solar microgrids. Their systems typically connect four solar panels to a village-wide grid capable of supplying about 100 households with power day and night. For a small setup fee, each family receives two to four LED lights and a mobile charging point costing about 50 cents per week. Batteries store up to two days’ of power. Although the systems are only in about 50 villages, the company plans to reach about 100,000 people within four years backed by a $300,000 grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development.
Here in the U.S., similar solar grids are also being considered but for very different reasons: to power the next generation of electric vehicles, and boost our existing grid with clean power. The Department of Energy has begun piloting such microgrids around the country (although not entirely solar) while buildings are being designed with solar-powered grids to refuel electric vehicles in the morning and supply power back to the grid at peak hours.
This time, however, the developed world may be behind. Mera Goa is deploying its systems in about 40 villages this year. India will likely see the widespread use of solar microgrids long before Silicon Valley.