Guest Commentary: Micro-Utility Resiliency in Developing Markets

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This article was originally published in the March-April 2018 issue of DISTRIBUTED ENERGY MAGAZINE

 

By Drew Lebowitz

How Sigora Haiti has overcome challenges.

n September 2017, in one of the most remote corners of Haiti, a pickup truck ambled along a rocky road in the dry scrublands of the northern peninsula. The truck drove through a stiff wind, loaded down with plywood and ratchet straps, on its way to provide the supplies required to detach and store the solar panels from Sigora Haiti’s recently constructed 207-kilowatt solar array.

Hurricane Irma was approaching, and the field team had made the decision to lower the panels that lay in the potential path of the Category 5 storm. Dozens of workers loosened bolts, detached modules, and stacked them in neat rows beneath the bare steel racking. Irma, whose winds were peaking at 175 mph, threatened to slam the island nation’s northern coast, and the destruction wrought by Hurricane Matthew a year earlier was at the forefront of everyone’s mind.

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For Sigora Haiti, a private micro-utility company deploying smart microgrids in Haiti’s underserved and unconnected communities, this was yet another day on the job, dealing with the challenges inherent in supplying energy in a remote corner of the world—and representative of the obstacles confronting off-grid providers spearheading the push to power the over one billion who do not have energy access worldwide.

Energy access in frontier markets like Haiti’s is a defining objective of the 21st-century—“Affordable, reliable, and sustainable energy access” is goal number seven of the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Spread across Sub-Saharan Africa, Southeast Asia, and a handful of countries like Haiti are thousands of villages and cities that are waiting to connect to electricity. Although most residents and businesses in these communities have the ability to pay for electricity—many are in fact paying a de facto premium in excess of 1000% more than what Americans pay per kWh for alternatives like candles, kerosene, or cell phone charging at a street vendor—these communities remain unconnected.

The challenges that make this market difficult to serve are what have traditionally driven providers to more well-understood and densely populated urban communities. There is a lack of reliable data on the purchasing power and consumption patterns of off-grid populations, and they are often located in remote areas far from the central grid, much like Haiti’s northwest. Utility companies and regulators are often nonexistent or lack clear guidelines on how to operate in the space. Because of these challenges, capital for these projects can be very difficult to find.

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A community-centric approach

To provide power to these markets, utilities are increasingly turning to micro-grid operators to provide essential public services in areas where the national utility cannot. These grids are generally smaller in size, ranging from 100–10,000 connections, and may be run as cooperatives, private companies, or not-for-profit entities. Some are connected to the traditional grid and some operate as standalone service areas.

At the last mile, companies like Sigora are proving by example that despite the challenges, microgrids lend themselves extremely well to providing productive energy to off-grid populations. Moreover, when it comes to emergencies and disaster preparedness, they provide a key advantage over their competitors: when run properly, leveraging lean operational paradigms, prudent utility practice, and a local labor force, they can be more resilient and versatile than traditional utilities.

Many aspects of the micro-grid lend themselves to resiliency. In general, microgrids are smaller; they are often controlled by local entities or the members themselves in the case of co-ops. Generation sources tend to be closer to the distribution network in microgrids, meaning easy diagnosis of generation problems onsite. Renewables and large-scale storage are common in microgrids, diversifying the energy sources and reducing dependence on fossil fuels. Although microgrids are often interconnected to other systems or to the larger grid, many can “island” themselves, providing for independent operation until the main grid regains stability.

Sigora Haiti’s 207-kW solar array

Sigora has found that one key element stands out among others in developing resilience: employing locally. A community-focused approach to building and operating grids with as much local labor as possible has enabled the company to leverage local know-how, facilitate community relations, and further develop local capacity. Employees are dedicated to the job and often work late nights to ensure their family and neighbors have power; Sigora’s offices in Haiti generally stay open 24 hours a day to provide around-the-clock customer service. Currently, Sigora employs and contracts with roughly 60 individuals, 95% of whom are Haitian. International contractors provide higher-level services and support as needed, but each individual grid is managed locally by trained residents. The model has proven effective in lowering downtimes, discouraging energy theft, and vastly decreasing operating expenses.

Sigora’s experience during Hurricane Irma is a prime example of how the characteristics of the micro-grid in combination with a distinctly community-centric operational approach can be leveraged together to strengthen resilience, both in terms of preparedness and response after the fact.

Traditional grid-tied solar arrays do not consider removing modules due to high expense, production losses, and risk of breakage. However, being in a major hurricane-risk zone, Sigora is required to evaluate such risks against the alternative and prepare accordingly. In 2016, Hurricane Matthew decimated the south of Haiti, including two microgrids located near the tip of the southern peninsula.

As Hurricane Irma bore down on Puerto Rico, Sigora moved to implement a full defensive strategy. The team fanned out across the community, preventatively pruning trees at risk of falling on the lines, reinforcing all potentially unstable structures in both towns, lashing transformers to posts, and lowering the modules, which were stacked and lashed beneath the racking. At 2:30 a.m. local time on the day Irma made landfall, Sigora shut down all power generation.

Ultimately, the hurricane veered to the north and Haiti was spared the worst of it. Sigora crews conducted field inspections and grid walks, verifying that no damage was sustained by the grid infrastructure and clearing the system for re-energization. Both grids were up and running approximately 12 hours after they had been shut down. The total cost of removing and re-mounting the modules was a fraction of what it would have cost at a traditional solar farm. Although the grid did not suffer a direct hit, the practice provided a clear option for mitigating damages if the grid were to ever be in the direct path of such a storm in the future, and reinforced a fundamental tenet of the company’s approach: the grid can bounce back better with local participation.

Given the increasing probability of extreme weather around the world, there is ever-greater interest in how to leverage past experience in order to build better, more resilient energy systems.

Looking ahead, microgrids will undoubtedly continue to gain prominence as an adaptable option to provide power to those who are still unconnected. Many grids, including Sigora’s, incorporate smart-grid technology, increasing the tools available to grid operators. Smart meters provide a real-time view of demand, among other data that allow operators better flexibility in managing the grid. More complex micro-grid controls allow for versatile types of operations, such as rationing power in times of crisis or maximizing battery life cycles. As smart meters become more integrated into the grid, demand-side regulation will provide tools for grids to adjust the entire grid to reflect varying costs of energy. Likewise, as more and more countries, particularly in the developing world, plan to increase their use of renewables, smart grid technologies will provide the means to integrate these renewables in a cost-efficient and effective way.

While decentralized energy solutions are arguably still in their infancy, their flexibility and adaptability are proving a powerful tool for scaling access to modern and resilient energy services beyond the grid. But the grid of the future will also require a decentralized approach to training, maintenance, and repairs, leveraging local labor and building capacity at the last mile.

Back in Haiti, the Sigora team is getting ready to power up its fourth micro-grid. Next year, the company plans to inaugurate the Sigora Solar Academy, which will employ local staff to train new workers and house the ongoing technician and line-worker education program. Hurricane preparedness will be on the curriculum.