While many consider electricity a basic human right, there are places where people have never had access to it. Among the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals is global access to affordable, reliable, and sustainable energy by 2030. Recently, the U.N. reported that progress in global electrification had slowed due to the challenge of reaching those hardest to reach.
To address that challenge, electrical engineer Reja Amatya, PhD, co-founded Waya Energy Inc., a Cambridge, MA-based startup that is commercializing MIT/IIT-Comillas University planning and analysis software, to help governments determine the most cost-effective ways to provide electricity to all their citizens.
Their electrification planning tool is called the reference electrification model (R.E.M.). One of its key objectives is to develop actionable electrification strategies and plans on a national scale for a country to incorporate into its five- or 10-year plan for the electricity sector.
The model considers various technologies, including grid extension vs. off-grid systems, and within off-grid systems, mini or microgrid systems. “We look at these technologies and assess which is the least-cost option,” said Amatya.
Key to their model is geospatially available data, which has gotten extremely granular, down to the level of people’s homes. It also locates the existing grid infrastructure. Using that information, they can identify areas that don't have any electricity access or perhaps an extremely unreliable connection. “We look at that data and analyze what may be the least-cost solution for providing access to these communities,” said Amatya. That information is what an agency like the World Bank looks at when they are considering which projects to finance.
When choosing a particular country, they do a study to provide insights to decision makers to assist in their planning. The study answers basic planning questions such as: what percentage of the population does not have access to electricity; how many mini-grids should be built; how many grid extensions should be built and where should they be located; where does building a grid extension make sense? “The majority of our current work is on national-scale studies, where we identify answers to those questions,” said Amatya. “We look at it from an integrated perspective, not advocating for any one technology, but doing a comparative technical/economic analysis to determine what makes the most sense for a given region.”
When they do a national-scale plan, their tool analyzes renewable systems using solar as the default option. However, they can also zoom in to a particular location and look at alternative renewables. So, if, for example, on a national scale, they see that off-grid has better promise and that the region has a high-wind capacity, they replace solar with wind generation in the plan. “For example, in Indonesia, hydropower was an available resource, so we looked at the micro-hydro potential that could replace the diesel generators that were being used,” said Amatya.
For a single community, you can use the model to design a grid extension system from the nearest grid line. And for a given demand, you can use it to calculate the size and cost of a mini-grid system for that community and to compare the costs.
But there are other variables as well. For example, in Nigeria, “The country is very disconnected. Because of many challenges for the utilities, the grid is unreliable, so people don't trust it. That has created a wide desire for mini-grid systems even though a community might be near the grid,” said Amatya.
The need to have standards for defining how off-grid and grid systems interact is a critical component of an electrification plan, Amatya said. “It’s essential that regulations are updated so that in five years, when there are many grid and off-grid systems, there will be formal guidance for best utilizing these assets to provide better service.”
So, to get back to the example of Nigeria, since there is a huge infrastructure already in place, an optimal plan would be to upgrade and reinforce the grid at the same time as the off-grid sector is being developed. “That’s the kind of assistance we want to give stakeholders by using our tool,” said Amatya.
This article was written by Ed Brown, Associate Editor, SAE Media Group. For more information, visit here .