Could microgrids save lives on remote islands?

Island energy storage: could islanded microgrid systems have helped in the Vanuatu cyclone Pam disaster?

Island energy storage: could islanded microgrid systems have helped in the Vanuatu cyclone Pam disaster? Photo credit: UNICEF Pacific

Upcoming debate on energy storage in microgrids was given a sense of urgency over the weekend as Cyclone Pam tore across Vanuatu in the Pacific.

As the devastated island nation issued a plea for international help, one of the questions facing the government and aid workers was how to restore power… and whether current fossil-fuelled generation sources should be replaced by renewable energy.

Like many island nations, Vanuatu has traditionally got most of its power from imported fossil fuels.

In 2010, for example, the nation’s main utility, the GDF Suez subsidiary Union Electrique du Vanuatu Limited (UNELCO), generated 68.7GWh of power using 14.3 megalitres of imported diesel along with 251 kilolitres of biofuel from coconut oil.

This reliance on imported fuel was already creating problems for the country before this weekend’s catastrophe. “The Government has been concerned for a number of years over the high cost of electricity,” noted the International Renewable Energy Agency.

Bringing electrification to rural communities

Meanwhile, the use of renewable-energy microgrids has been extending across many other rural communities in developing regions. In Northern India, for example, OMC is among the companies working to bring electrification to rural communities.

While OMC focuses mainly on micro-power systems for single households, next month CEO Anil Raj is set to reveal how larger setups could support mining, agricultural, telecommunications and petrochemical industries at the Energy Storage World Forum.

Similar systems, typically combining PV with batteries and diesel generation, are also being used in rural Africa by organisations such as the Dutch Foundation of Rural Energy Services (FRES).

FRES has so far installed nine solar and hybrid microgrids in Africa, with a combined capacity of 550kWh, according to business development director Caroline Nijland, another speaker at the Forum.

In island settings the value of battery-equipped microgrids is likely to be even greater than it is for other types of remote communities, however.

Surviving Cyclone Olwyn

On Monday, for example, the Australian renewable energy website RenewEconomy pointed out that one of the few power systems to survive Cyclone Olwyn, which was raging at the same time as Pam, was a solar hybrid microgrid on Thevenard Island.

“Microgrids are shaping up to be key components to improving ‘energy resiliency’, and to mitigating the crippling impact of disasters fuelled by climate change, with their ability to keep power flowing,” RenewEconomy said.

Doug Staker, co-founder and vice president of global sales at Demand Energy, commented that: “Islanded microgrids offer several critical benefits to local grid operations and the end user community.

“In the case of a critical power shortage, micro-grids can be placed in an islanded mode, keeping the user community up and running and allowing the local grid to reduce load and maintain stability.

“In the event of a power outage, the microgrid can bring the local community back online and allow normal operations during the broader grid outage. In either case, storage is key to micro-grid operational success.”

In places such as Vanuatu, which has 65 inhabited islands spread across a large expanse of ocean, this ability to provide emergency power from microgrid batteries could literally be a matter of life or death while aid workers struggle to attend the injured.

Maintaining essential communications

Microgrids could also play a role in maintaining essential communications. Vanuatu’s neighbours the Solomon Islands earlier this year inked a deal to use microgrids for telecommunications power as part of a wider move to renewables.

The developer, Sunlabob of Laos, will be demonstrating its ability to attract United Nations and Asian Development Bank funding for such projects at the Energy Storage World Forum next month.

Tragically, conditions for similar investment were emerging on Vanuatu just when Cyclone Pam struck.

In recent years UNELCO had managed to raise its level of renewable energy generation to 20%, with 10% from biofuels, 9% from a 3MW wind farm and 1% from three PV plants.

With Vanuatu’s storm damage already being labelled “one of the worst disasters ever seen in the Pacific,” it is clear that the nation’s reconstruction will have to start almost from zero.

And it is increasingly evident that microgrids could not only assist in Vanuatu’s economic recovery, but might also help the country weather the next storm.

Written by Jason Deign

2 thoughts on “Could microgrids save lives on remote islands?

  1. Yes I agree, micro grids and standalone power plants are essential. Why not consider Concentrated solar power (CSPHI)hybrid with an ORC power pack using possibly biomass, biomass can be grown on the islands in the form of fast growing bamboo, or using the many coconuts on the Pacific Islands, this is the way forward. New industries giving real jobs that will provide energy security.

    • Thanks Ann. Hybrid CSP is a very interesting concept which I think has great potential, but as a former island dweller myself I can see three possible drawbacks compared to PV with batteries:

      1. Land use: CSP solar fields typically take up a lot of room, which may not be easy to come by on small islands. PV, however, can go on rooftops.

      2. Cost: CSP remains significantly more costly than PV, so most PV-based hybrid combinations (with batteries, biomass, diesel, etc) would likely be cheaper than CSP variants.

      3. Reliability: getting hold of servicing and spares can be a real problem in remote islands, which would favour the use of products from companies with established worldwide distribution networks–not usually the case with CSP suppliers.

      I am personally a fan of CSP and would love to see it being used more widely, but precisely the kinds of CSP technologies that might work best in island environments, such as dish Stirling or integrated solar and combined cycle plants, are among the ones that seem furthest from mainstream commercialisation at the moment. Let’s hope that changes in future.

      -Jason Deign

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