Changing Lives With Solar Microgrids

Published: Aug. 18, 2016

By Laurie Guevara-​Stone for RMI Outlet

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Haiti is the poorest the country in the western hemisphere. Only 25 percent of the 10.3 million people in the country have access to electricity. One nonprofit organization is testing a solution that could not only change the lives of the unelectrified in Haiti, but could be a model of how to bring electricity to the 1.2 billion people in the world still living in the dark.

EarthSpark International has built a 93 kW solar-powered microgrid in the small town of Les Anglais (pop. 3,000 in the “downtown” area), which currently supplies clean reliable power to approximately 2,000 people.

Why a microgrid?

Haiti has more than 30 existing municipal microgrids, but most of them don’t work. And even when they do function, they run on diesel and operate just a few hours a day, a few days a week. So EarthSpark’s goal was to provide people with 24-hour clean affordable electricity.

EarthSpark began working in Haiti providing people with small solar home systems and solar lanterns, products that are life-changing tools for people without access to grid electricity. But the organization soon realized that those aren’t the solutions to which everyone aspires. “To truly unlock economic opportunity, people need access to higher levels of electricity than what a solar home system can provide,” Allison Archambault, president of EarthSpark International, told RMI.

“With the right conditions minigrids can provide energy services in a low-cost sweet spot between small levels of energy consumption that can be effectively served by small stand-alone solar systems and traditional grid extension,” according to Eric Wanless, a principal in RMI’s international practice leading the Sustainable Energy for Economic Development initiative.

EarthSpark isn’t the only group focusing on microgrids. Husk Power has brought electricity to 200,000 people in the highly unelectrified state of Bihar in India, using rice husks to fuel microgrids; Powerhive, Devergy, and PowerGen are bringing power to East Africa with solar microgrids; and Gham Power is building solar microgrids in rural Nepal.

A microgrid can give residences and businesses enough power to run motors, process agricultural products, and power freezers. Plus, much of the electricity used by rural industry is seasonal, such as an agricultural mill, which is used during harvest season and on market days. “Building an energy system just for that mill would mean an asset that is under-utilized much of the time,” adds Archambault. “But with a microgrid, you can use that capacity for other uses, and everyone buys down the cost for everyone else. We like to say our system is powerful enough to energize industry, and progressive enough to serve every single customer.”

Tackling Technical Challenges

Many technical challenges arise when building a microgrid that you don’t necessarily encounter with individual systems. The EarthSpark team looked all over the world to find a low-cost, high-functionality meter that would allow their small utility to customize tariffs, manage demand, and offer pay-as-you-use services. They couldn’t find anything, so they designed their own. The SparkMeter technology is now installed in nine different countries serving microgrid and central grid operators.

The SparkMeter metering and billing system is a critical component in the Les Anglais microgrid as it allows people to prepay and buy as much electricity as they need, in the same way Haitians buy phone credits, and in the same way they are used to spending money on kerosene or diesel.

Tariffs are different for different customer classes, and there is also time-of-use pricing. For example, in the middle of the day the solar array generates more power than is needed to charge the 400 kWh of batteries in the system, so the surplus electricity is sold at a cheaper rate.

Overcoming Logistical Challenges

Working in developing countries like Haiti brings a lot of logistical challenges as well. There is often not a clear process for implementing innovative projects. When Earthspark hired a firm from the Dominican Republic to build the distribution system, the firm brought a crane to help install the poles and wires. Unfortunately, the crane got stuck on the border for five weeks as the officials weren’t sure how to deal with a vehicle that was not a truck or a car. All of the linemen and staff, not to mention the community members, were extremely frustrated as the installation was put on hold for over a month. Finally the head of the largest telecommunications company in Haiti lent the project a crane.

Archambault calls the process “derisking by doing.” The actual construction process revealed where the hiccups might be. “A lot of unknowns and a lot of risks remain,” she says. “We’re doing the research and development on the business model, focusing on Haiti, but solutions we’re coming up with are relevant to a lot of places around the world that need energy access.”

Confronting Legal and Regulatory Challenges

One of the biggest challenges comes in the legal and regulatory framework in Haiti, or lack thereof. In the absence of a clear legal and regulatory framework it will be difficult to get investors. While family foundations, National Geographic, the United Nations, and USAID funded the first microgrid, Earthspark wants to get to an investable model, which means a proven track record.

All of these challenges are not specific to Haiti, as can be seen in RMI’s current work to help the Rwandan government raise the country’s electrification rate from 24 percent to 70 percent by 2018. RMI recently delivered a diagnostic with actionable recommendations to the government on how to supply around 50 percent of the population with power from the grid, and over 20 percent of the population with power from off-grid systems. The diagnostic included a set of recommendations that need to be implemented quickly in order to create the conditions necessary for future success. The RMI team remains in Rwanda to help government and the private sector fit those recommendations into the nation’s evolving energy system.

“A big part of the work we’re doing in Rwanda and elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa is all about helping investors and companies like EarthSpark clearly articulate the minigrid value proposition in the context of a host of electrification options to ensure that the capital that is put against the problem delivers the most impact,” says Wanless.

Promoting Economic Development

Residents of Les Anglais not only have access to reliable power 24 hours a day, but are also saving money on their energy expenses. Before the microgrid, they were spending about $10 to $12 each month for kerosene and spending $3 to $4 each month to charge phones (at nearly $0.25 per charge). Now residential microgrid customers are saving 80 percent of their household energy budget, paying about $2 to $3 per month for much better quality power. And EarthSpark’s larger business customers are saving 50 percent over what they were spending on diesel.

EarthSpark’s goal is to build 80 microgrids in the next five years, bringing power to over 200,000 people, a small dent in the 7 million Haitians still living without access to electricity.

But for those 200,000 people, it’s a game changer. “We have small enterprises using electricity for the first time, people starting new businesses. The carpenter now has power tools. The hotel and the mill have been able to drastically reduce their power bills, by switching off their big diesel generators. And people come up to me and tell me their children no longer have the smoke of kerosene burn their eyes when they’re studying,” says Archambault. EarthSpark’s project in Haiti and RMI’s work in Sub-Saharan Africa are delivering clean reliable electricity to people and unlocking huge opportunities for rural communities around the world.

Related News & Events: 
Thirsty for Energy
Nov. 15, 2017

This is the first of EarthSpark International's visual stories from Les Anglais, Haiti, where, despite the destruction from Hurricane Matthew in 2016, they're hard at work repairing and expanding their microgrid.

Oct. 2, 2017

Microgrids, like the one built by EarthSpark in Haiti, are more storm-resilient; they don't transmit power long distances over storm-vulnerable wire. Rebuilding in Puerto Rico offers a chance build a grid that's less centralized, decreasing the chance for widespread, long-term outages after a storm.