Creating Resilient Sustainable Microgrids through Hybrid Renewable Energy Systems

Lead Research Organisation: University of Leeds
Department Name: Sch of Geography


Universal access to affordable modern clean energy is goal 7 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs state that "Energy is central to nearly every major challenge and opportunity the world faces today. Be it for jobs, security, climate change, food production or increasing incomes, access to energy for all is essential." In sub-Saharan Africa, more than 625 million people have no access to modern energy services. Most African countries - 42 in all - are net energy importers and fossil-fuel-fired plants account for 81% of total electricity generation, which is mostly in South Africa. Most large infrastructure projects are public investments financed by national budgets. The estimated cost of bringing Africa's energy infrastructure to modern standard is 93 billion USD/ year. There is a huge gap between energy supply and demand in Africa, and other developing countries, that successive efforts have failed to bridge. The envisioned holistic hybrid MGs will lead to a prototype model for the creation of sustainable and resilient distribution networks for off-grid locations. This approach has the potential to enable electrification of millions of households. Both Tanzania and Uganda are low income 'least developed' countries with a high level of rural poverty and very limited grid connectivity. The Republic of Congo is classed as a lower middle income country due to its mineral wealth, but has low grid connectivity away from cities and its research sector suffers from under-investment in research capacity building

This proposal focuses on energy distribution in off-grid communities with a population of around 4000 inhabitants, a size that has been recommended by our African project partners as being the practical optimum for implementation. The research has an integrated approach to ensure that the design of the system is maintainable, has good longevity with low cost, meets diverse community energy needs and is resilient to natural hazards. The overall goal is to enable the development of sustainable and resilient energy distribution grids in rural communities of the low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) Tanzania, Uganda and Republic of the Congo, where currently at most 10% of the rural population has access to electricity. We will achieve this by designing a scalable low-cost MG infrastructure based on a novel planning methodology that incorporates real-time operational strategies and sustainable generation flexibility at the system design stage to reduce the investment requirements and increase sustainability. The MG paradigm will ensure that the research outcomes are also applicable to communities with sporadic grid connections. Building on the existing partnership platform created by the PI's five year £1.2M Royal Society renewable energy capacity building project, the present grant will enable us to realise and experimentally validate a unique, integrated, design platform that incorporates electrical network requirements with hybrid renewable energy generation sources as well as socio-economic and local community-driven considerations. This holistic approach is driven by the understanding that the creation of a truly sustainable, reliable, and locally maintainable energy distribution infrastructure needs to be focused on actual needs and local realities, beyond a purely electrical perspective. This will provide innovative distribution system configurations targeted at supporting the scalable and self-sustainable electrification of rural communities in our three partner countries. An advisory panel drawn from partners of our EPSRC Pump Priming for Global Challenge Research project will ensure that the results are also applicable to LMICs globally.

Planned Impact

The people who will benefit from this research are those without access to modern clean energy supplies. It is estimated by the African Development Bank that over 645 million Africans (about 40 per cent of the continent's population) have no access to electricity. The focus for electrification is usually on urban centres rather than rural areas due to the presence of economic and support activities: industries, financial service providers, government organizations, major educational institutions, shopping centres, etc. In general, the rural population is poorer than the urban and the economy is more hand-to-mouth or subsistence which does not allow for savings of money or obtaining assets. This means that many households cannot afford connection fees or even monthly electricity costs.

Low-income countries need to build their research capacities in order to ensure a suitably large and skilled cadre of prospective researchers and educators working on renewable energy. Governance, financing and operational arrangements are organised for centralised non-renewable energy infrastructure. This involves major capital investments and top-down control. In contrast, small-scale renewable energy systems are implemented by local businesses and community effort. Facilitation of local energy requires the uptake of innovative technology and the establishment of new legal and institutional frameworks to encourage investment and sustainable energy supply.

This project will develop an holistic approach to sustainable, resilient, micro-grids (MG). It will use state-of-the-art technology at the University of Leeds to research and create micro-grid scenarios that can be applied in realistic situations in Africa. The project will draw on field data and experience in Africa to ensure that that the MG meet realistic local needs and expectations. Through close collaboration with an existing project on capacity building for renewable energy, funded by the Royal Society and running parallel with the proposed project, integration with existing training needs and local governance and businesses will be achieved

The project will also draw on knowledge and experience from Indonesia, which has embarked on a major programme of promoting renewable energy to enhance local development through provision of universal access to clean modern energy supplies. This is particularly important for the many small islands that comprise Indonesia as a whole and these are part of the 'Iconic Islands' project for small-scale renewable energy on islands that can't be reached by large-scale energy infrastructure.The tariff regulations introduced made many investors postpone their plan to invest in the renewable energy power sector. The project will conduct research on implementation of the Iconic Islands project in two ways. Firstly by assessing the technical options adopted and examining in detail the potential for bioenergy. Secondly by analysing the governance and institutional arrangements with specific attention being paid to the question of tariffs, which has been identified as a key barrier to sustainable private sector investment. This learning experience will be transferred to the design and implementation of micro-grids in the African context.

The innovations being researched by the programme are of the scale that can be taken up by small to medium scale entrepreneurs. This offers the potential for local private sector investment to contribute to filling the energy supply gap. Training courses in the project will include entrepreneurial skills and the project will include networking with entrepreneurs. The existing partnership platform has good links with local renewable energy businesses. They will be integrated into the project from the outset.

Social and natural resource constraints for operation of the micro-grids will be an integral part of the research with the technical expertise in Leeds combined with the local knowledge in Africa.


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