Monday, March 27, 2017

Rural communities and renewable energies

Small, remote, economically challenged communities have successfully integrated renewable energy into their existing, diesel-based power grids with more success than just about anywhere else in the world.
What? That's not possible.

Apparently it is.

Renewable Energy Alaska Project (REAP) is doing just what its name says - and seemingly with much success. Scientific American recently re-published an article by David W. Shaw from Ensia wherein Shaw describes the successes of "microgrids" in rural Alaska. Using hydro and wind energy sources, these microgrids created by REAP actually decrease costs of energy for communities in remote areas of Alaska. Let me say that again. Renewable energy is decreasing the cost of energy in rural Alaska.

According to Shaw, some of the more remote areas of Alaska pay up to $1 per kilowatt-hour for electricity. That is eight times the national average of just 12 cents. Obviously more than just a few kilowatt hours of electricity are needed to get by, especially in Alaska. That's expensive.

Here in Davis, CA, Pacific Gas & Electric charges me and my two roommates 18.3 cents per kilowatt hour for our electricity. After glimpsing at some past bills, it seems like we use about 210 kWh per month. That means that if we lived in one of these rural areas of Alaska, and used the same amount of electricity, we would be paying over $200 per month (plus whatever additional cost for gas). That's a low estimate for an Alaskan home because in Davis, we are lucky enough to rarely need heat in our home. Now, imagine a business owner, or a larger family, or someone with medical needs that require equipment that runs on electricity, or even one step further, a hospital. Energy costs are a huge concern.

One study, published by the UN Foundation, looked at 12  microgrids in three developing countries (India, Malaysian Borneo, and Haiti). The study examined factors that allow the energy models to "thrive or struggle." These factors are tariff design, tariff collection mechanisms, maintenance and contractor performance, theft management, demand growth, load limits, and local training and institutionalization. The study asserts that "microgrids – distributed systems of local energy generation, transmission, and use – are today technologically and operationally ready to provide communities with electricity services, particularly in rural and peri-urban areas of less developed countries." The success of the microgrids depends largely on the organizing body's ability to adapt to each individual community and also take into account the business model (whether the project is for-profit or subsidized to some extent). Another more macro-breakdown of "best practices" for microgrid project planning in rural areas that the study provides is based on three areas: Social Context, Strategic Planning, and Operations.

The price benefits in rural areas of these developing countries are even greater than in rural Alaska. According to the study, "Many households in rural areas of the developing world depend entirely on traditional fuels." The study reports that using wood or kerosene for a stove may cost $2/KWh hour while grid connection could reduce that cost to just 10 cents. Other benefits include "improved health, safety, productivity and education;" this is largely due to replacing kerosene with electricity.

Back in Alaska, REAP's model has successfully used microgrids to provide electricity for small geographical areas with individual communities. Like the study discussed above suggests, Shaw describes these microgrids as "customized." That's exactly what they are. Piper Foster Wilder, deputy director of REAP, explains that they go into each community where a new microgrid will be built and figure out which resources are most abundant and how they should split up energy sourcing to be most efficient. She also notes that some of the Alaskan towns are primed for this project because of their topography, which has led to the great success of using wind and hydro power on a small scale. Each project is specific to both place and community.

Shaw's main point in his article is that these microgrid models are working. "Some 1.2 billion people on the planet do not currently have access to electricity. And there’s a lot these people can learn from Alaska." At least in rural Alaska, the microgrid model has saved families and businesses a lot of money through decreasing the cost of keeping the lights on.

For previous posts on renewable energy in rural areas, see herehere and here. And then read this previous post about legislation to help California farmers use easements for solar energy to offset land costs.

2 comments:

Kyle Kate Dudley said...

RGL,

I thought this was a fascinating and hopeful post! One of the main concerns of people living in rurality seems to be the challenge of getting cost-effective services that many people in more urban areas completely take for granted. I had no idea that electricity could be so terribly expensive, but I do remember it being a challenge for us to pay the electric bill growing up, so I gather these microgrids wouldn't just save people some money, but really change lives and allow people to sleep easier.

I also think the place/community specific model is the only way to go. Rural issues cannot be fixed with a one-size-fits all approach that funnels down from a state house. I think this is a great example of using the rural sense of self-sufficiency to develop tailored solutions (wind, hydro, or other policy) that fit the community.

EAG said...

The REAP microgrid idea is very interesting and it's amazing to see communities being supported by renewables energy. Seeing communities use all renewable energy makes me question why these technologies are not more widely used across America. Increasing the use of renewable energy may help to support farmers who often struggle with tight profit margins. Wind farms and solar fields could be a good option to replace costly and polluting gasoline (https://www.pastemagazine.com/articles/2017/03/big-solar-generates-big-wins-for-rural-communities.html) and also may serve as an additional revenue stream if excess power is generated. Furthermore, wind farms and the solar industry created more jobs for rural Americans than the coal industry in 2016 (100,000 vs. 65,000) (https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2017-01-31/u-s-wind-solar-power-focus-on-rural-jobs-as-trump-touts-coal). By emphasizing renewable energy in rural areas, more jobs are created, electricity is more cost effective, and it is environmentally friendly. With all of these benefits, it is unclear why the current administration is pushing for more investment in the coal industry and not renewable energy industries.