Powering our devices and charging our smart devices day and night is something that many people take for granted. Yet globally 789 million people living in remote communities and isolated areas do not have access to electricity. If we include people who are not connected to their national grid, that number rises to 1.4 billion.
Families that come off their national grid are mainly dependent on standalone diesel generators, which creates problems. Diesel generators contain carbon emissions as well as many toxic byproducts such as benzene, arsenic and formaldehyde. Bulk transportation and long-term storage of diesel fuel pose significant environmental threats to these communities. Millions of liters of diesel have depleted and polluted the land and water.
Renewable mini-grid energy systems are central to reducing diesel dependence in remote communities. Mini-grids are small energy distribution networks that are separated from the main energy grid. Unlike micro-grids, which can power one or a few units, mini-grids can serve the needs of a village, a community consisting of residences and public buildings, or sometimes an entire island. However, a significant number of these projects are abandoned soon after their inception.
As researchers specializing in sustainable operations, we identified over 100 renewable mini-grid projects installed in rural areas around the world between 1995 and 2018 to better understand what factors drive success. carry away.
Energy inequality across Canada
This problem is very relevant and timely for Canada as well. About 200,000 Canadians are not connected to the North American grid or natural gas distribution pipeline. About 70 percent of these remote communities depend on diesel and another 17 percent on other fossil fuels.
Transporting diesel to communities outside of central grid coverage increases the cost of supply and contributes to social inequality. Diesel-generated electricity costs three to 10 times more than the average Canadian household per kilowatt-hour.
Renewable energy mini-grids can successfully solve all these problems. In addition, they reinforce the energy autonomy and sovereignty of remote communities. To this end, a plethora of national and provincial programs now support and finance the development of these projects. For example, Kapawe’no First Nation was awarded $1.5 million to reduce the community’s reliance on diesel fuel and cut energy costs.
Common barriers to long-term success
While this all sounds very promising, there is one important caveat. It is one thing to install a renewable system in a remote community and another to ensure its long-term, sustainable operation. As our research shows, a lack of community participation and governance can mean the effort is futile.
In our recent study we have created a database of rural renewable mini-grids established within the last decade. We systematically reviewed a vast collection of scientific publications, government databases, development agency reports and a portfolio of private developers. We examined the properties and long-term success of these developments.
Unfortunately, a significant number of these projects fail soon after their inception. In one particular context, 60 per cent of renewable mini-grid projects were abandoned within just six months of installation. The reasons cited for failure always point to similar challenges: lack of local maintenance expertise and lack of acceptance.
On the other hand, successful projects around the world share a common property: ownership of the local community. Top-down approaches that exclude the voice of the community in project development almost always fail in the long term.
In some cases, when a local technician is not available, minor failures render these projects inoperable. Misuse and overloading of the grid can easily lead to these minor failures. Lack of security and local oversight can also mean sabotage or theft of electricity by residents of other communities.
In others, local authorities, community leaders and end users are not properly consulted, and the solutions developed are not commensurate with the energy needs of the community. With no resources to expand or adjust, people lose faith in the system and revert to using diesel technology. Finally, mismatched investor expectations can result in poor return on investment in these projects.
how to prevent failure
There are some best practices to follow. It is important to align the needs and interest of the community with the objectives of the project. Policy makers and researchers should start working actively with communities from the outset. The credibility of engagement activities can be increased by coordinating outreach efforts to users, project developers, and community leaders.
In terms of financial success, regulators must carefully design tariffs that generate enough revenue to cover the project’s operating expenses, yet remain affordable to consumers. Additional value can be generated by linking these projects to local businesses and income generation. For example, the power of a mini-grid can support local industries and public services such as health and education centers.
Finally, community members should be trained and employed in the operation of the mini-grid. Project managers need to make sure people in the community know how to repair and maintain them. Similarly, storing spare parts and maintenance equipment locally will ensure a longer lifespan for these projects because the remote nature of these communities means that some only have large items once or twice a year. Only then, can these communities achieve and maintain true energy sovereignty.