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Micro-grids are the next big thing


On Energy Day at COP26, Chair in Global Challenges Jon Lovett tells us why micro-grids are the next big thing in energy transition infrastructure, and points to collaborations across the UK and Africa that are providing the evidence.

There has been a revolution in the generation of electricity from renewable sources. Wind, hydro, tidal, biomass and solar generating technologies are now standard ways of supplying electricity. The shift to renewables is not only driven by concern about greenhouse gas emissions – it is now cheaper to generate electricity from renewables than fossil fuels. This opens the possibility for widespread use of micro-grids and the opportunity to make a major contribution to achieving Sustainable Development Goal 7: Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy.

What is a micro-grid? Traditional electricity systems consist of large-scale generating and transmission infrastructure with pylons and cables stretching out from big power plants to reach consumers. This transmission infrastructure is arranged in a huge electricity grid that includes several power plants so that the outputs from the different plants can be balanced in the grid. It’s also very expensive to construct and operate. A micro-grid is similar, only much smaller. It provides electricity to a community that might be composed of houses, a hospital, a school, shops and businesses. The electricity could be generated from a range of different sources. It’s much cheaper to create.

Solar power is often an important contributor to micro-grids because solar panels are now quite cheap, but they need expensive battery storage because the sun only shines during the day. Other sources could be hydropower if there is a river nearby, wind power if the community is somewhere the wind blows regularly, and biomass that is burnt or digested to power an engine through steam, gasification or biogas. A renewable energy micro-grid might be supplemented with a diesel generator or even a main grid connection to ensure a constant power supply.

This type of hybrid micro-grid requires careful design and planning. A team at Leeds working on the CRESUM-HYRES project funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has developed an open-source software design tool called PYePLAN. Agnes Nakiganda, Dr. Shahab Dehghan, and Dr. Petros Aristidou, who created PYePLAN, have tested it in the design of a sustainable micro-grid on Alderney Island. Agnes has followed up this initial work by partnering with a team in Uganda from the Centre for Research in Energy and Energy Conservation (CREEC) to design a micro-grid for the Watoto Suubi orphanage village. The design tool is now being used by CREEC for many different applications.

University of Leeds and CREEC collaborators standing in front of a mobile gasifier electricity generator during a meeting to discuss energy access for blind people.

Jon Lovett, Mary Susan Abbo, Director of our partner CREEC in Kampala, and Abdul Buusulwa, former Leeds PhD students and a representative of an association for the blind in Uganda in front of a mobile gasifier electricity generator. Image credit: Jon Lovett.

Transitioning to a new technology needs to be matched with capacity building. In addition to working with CREEC, the Leeds team have been working with the Dar es Salaam Institute of Technology (DIT)  to build capacity in electrical engineering and micro-grid design with support from the Royal Society Africa Capacity Building Initiative. A student from DIT, Mwaka Juma, successfully completed her PhD in 2020 and has been publishing a series of papers on her research . Mwaka has also been working with her supervisor, Dr Consalva Msigwa, to engage with stakeholders responsible for micro-grid policy and implementation with support from the Royal Academy of Engineering.

The African and Leeds team have also been working with the Resilience Development Initiative in Indonesia to transfer knowledge from the Indonesian government ‘Iconic Island’ renewable energy programme on Sumba Island. The teams held a joint workshop in Jakarta in December 2019, bringing together more than 150 participants from 50 entities involved with renewable energy development in Indonesia. An important component of the workshop was bringing the villagers ‘Voices of Sumba’ to the government ministers who attended the meeting.

The Indonesian and African teams have also been working together with the Leeds Digital Education Service and the Mexican Grupo Interdisciplinario de Tecnologia Rural Apropiada at UNAM to prepare a two-week massive open online course on bioenergy for the FutureLearn platform. The course is geared to both students and practitioners, and features videos produced by the CREEC team in collaboration with a Ugandan film production company, Atonga Media. The teams partnering with Leeds are currently in the process of preparing a second complimentary course on micro-grids for the FutureLearn platform.

An innovative outreach activity resulting from the partnership between CREEC and Atonga Media, and developed with support from the Leeds Royal Society funded project, is a television drama series called ‘Kampala’, which includes renewable energy generation technologies in the storyline. The aim is to build familiarity and acceptance of these new technologies and their application to generation in micro-grids.

The first target of Sustainable Development Goal 7 is to ensure universal access to affordable, reliable and modern energy services by 2030. Millions of people throughout the world are without this simple service. But the technologies are now available at a price that brings them within reach. Micro-grids offer a way of bringing light and power to communities not connected to national grids, as well as to those who are connected to unreliable grids, and even to those with full grid connections who want to generate their own community electricity with a hybrid system. Micro-grids not only work for those without modern energy services, they also enable disconnection from polluting forms of generation and they can  be used in the industrialised world. Microgrids are the next big thing.


You can hear more from Jon Lovett at an online event exploring how bioenergy can help achieve the aspirations of COP26 and the sustainable development goal of universal access to modern clean energy on 9 November, 9:00 – 10:00 GMT. 

Main image by Molly Bergen/WCS, WWF, WRI” by CARPE Congo Basin is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0