In 2010 the number of people living without electricity was estimated to be about 1.2 billion. By 2019, this had been reduced to about 760 million. The most significant contribution to this reduction, was the installation of small solar systems, powering at village or household scale. According to the World Bank, about 420 million people currently get their electricity from off-grid solar systems. They estimate that by 2030, that number could increase to 800 million.

Unfortunately, such a metric hides more than it reveals. Having an electrical connection or even a solar panel does not necessarily imply access to electricity. On average, the sun is only available as an energy source about 12 hours a day. Energy access must also take into account reliability and affordability, and is most appropriately measured on a tiered spectrum, from Tier 0 (no access) to Tier 5 (the highest level of access).

Many people in emerging markets (and elsewhere) do not have enough money to pay for products in advance. Pay As You Go (PAYGo) models allow these users to pay for their products over time using technology enabled, embedded consumer financing. A PAYGo company typically offers a solar product, such as a solar home systems and multi-light pico devices. The customer makes a down payment, followed by regular payments for a term ranging from six months to eight years. Payments are usually made via mobile money, though alternative methods are sometimes available.

Productive use leveraging solar energy (PULSE) is defined as any agricultural/ commercial/ industrial activity that uses solar energy as a direct input to the production of goods/ services. PULSE enables/ enhances income generation by households/ farms/ microenterprises, often by mechanizing activities that would otherwise be performed manually or by providing additional hours of lighting in which to work. These activities and lighting might also replace non-renewable sources of energy, such as diesel generators or kerosene.

An especially important area for PULSE is for cold storage, refrigeration, and agricultural processing. This means there is a need for a large number of off-grid refrigerators, as well as products for solar milling. The World Bank, in its report, notes the need for specialized products for use in specific value chains such as poultry, dairy, and coffee. The PULSE segment is in its infancy, but has a potential for rapid expansion.

Key trends in emerging markets from 2020 onwards include: 1) Hardware manufacturing and design. Manufacturers are improving product quality, and developing brands for emerging markets; they are providing lower-cost products at consistently higher quality levels. 2) Software development. Software offers customizable and open architectures, that encourages PAYGo models and platforms. 3) Marketing and distribution. While large international companies are leveraging data to optimize sales and distribution, hardware companies are partnering with local distributors to reach previously underserved markets. 4) Consumer financing. PAYGo is encouraging innovation for payment systems. Companies are partnering directly with financial institutions to decouple consumer finance from their business models. 5) After-sales support. Remote monitoring is enabling companies to improve customer service and asset management. They are incorporating e-waste disposal considerations into business models.

The Chinese Belt and Road Initiative is a global infrastructure development strategy adopted by the Chinese government in 2013 to invest in nearly 70 countries and international organizations. Participants involve about 65% of the world’s population. Many of the countries participating are in emerging markets. Here, and elsewhere, Chinese manufacturers will sell higher-quality, self-branded products through local distribution partners and increasingly through their own distribution networks, including on PAYGo. This will increase the amount of high-quality, but lower-cost, products reaching these markets.

What should families in the developing world/ emerging markets do to obtain reliable supply of electrical energy? In many places, utilities (public and/ or private) are unreliable, while new solar panels are too expensive. From about 2010 to 2020, the obvious solution was to buy used solar panels. These panels become available because, in the more developed world, there is economic pressure to make optimal use of roofs and other surfaces, to produce as much power per surface area. This meant the regular replacement and subsequent sale of sub-optimal solar panels. Energy Bin has about 5 million pieces of photovoltaic equipment available on their site, and there are estimates that about 10 million used solar panels are available at any given time, on the global market.

The main source of information about this topic is: Off Grid Solar: Market Trends Report 2020.

Off the Grid

The Briceburg energy system provided by BoxPower. Photo: BoxPower

On 2019-10-07, Briceburg in Mariposa County, near Yosemite National Park, in California, lost the only power line connecting it to the electrical grid in a wildfire that devoured over 20 square kilometers. The system, owned by Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), but installed and developed by BoxPower, provides Briceburg with a self-reliant, stand-alone power system made of solar panels in an array, batteries and a backup generator. It began operating 2021-06-01.

The solar array consisting of 36.5 kW of photovoltaic solar panels, a 69.12 kWh lithium ferro phosphate battery bank. This can provide 27.2 kW of continuous power output with a surge capacity of up to 48 kW. The system has two integrated 35 kVA propane prime power generators and a fire suppression system to protect the hardware. PG&E and BoxPower will be able to monitor/ control the system via satellite.

While wildfires in 2019, forced PG&E to file for bankruptcy in 2019, the main reason for using this technology is to improve energy resilience in California as extreme heat, drought and wildfires devastate the American west. Human-based climate change is causing blackouts and disrupting power supply. Wind-storms led utilities to deliberately shut off power to large areas of California to keep high-voltage transmission lines from starting fires. Then 2020-08-14 & 15, an oppressive heat wave forced the California Independent System Operator, which manages the state power grid, to declare a stage 3 emergency Friday night, which set off rolling power outages for the first time since 2001. More than 800,000 homes and businesses lost power.

Meanwhile, back at the Blue Lake Rancheria (BLR), members of the Wiyot, Yurok, and Hupa tribal nations, living northwest of the city of Blue Lake, Humboldt County, California on 0.31 km2 of property, keep electricity flowing using two microgrids that can disconnect from the larger electrical grid, and switch to using solar energy generated and stored in battery banks near its hotel-casino. This is not strictly off the grid, but a supplement to the grid.

After the 2011-03-11 Tōhoku earthquake and tsunami caused local panic but little damage, the tribal nation complex decided to install a microgrid. Humbolt University’s Schatz Energy Research Center was the prime contractor and lead technology integrator for the project. A final report for the project was published in 2019.

Other participants included: The California Energy Commission (major funder), the BLR (site host and major funder), Pacific Gas & Electric (local utility), Siemens (MicroGrid Management System = MGMS), Tesla (battery energy storage system), Idaho National Laboratory (testing and simulation), Robert Colburn Electric (electrical contractor), REC Solar (turnkey PV system), McKeever Energy & Electric (PV installation), GHD, inc. (electrical engineering), and Kernen Construction (civil construction for the project).

It consisted of a 430-kW solar photovoltaic array with a 500 kW/ 950 kW/h Tesla battery storage system and two legacy diesel generators with a combined capacity of 1.8 MW. These are designed to retain electricity after storms/ wildfires/ earthquakes and to supply the grid with power, during peak demand. Construction started in 2015 and was completed in 2017. During the microgrid’s first year of operation it was able to reduce the tribe’s greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions by about 175 tons and lower its energy costs by about $195 000.

The microgrid investment made sense to ensure service and business continuation during nuisance outages that were typical in the region, lasting for an hour or two. The tribe also recognized how climate change was amplifying local impacts including wildfires and volatile weather. This led them to develop a comprehensive lifeline strategy for energy, water, food, transportation and communications/IT. They started with energy, because it supports all the other lifelines.

When the microgrid was constructed, they were not thinking of extended power outages to prevent the grid from causing or contributing to wildfires. Today public-safety power shutoffs happen regularly and they are projected to occur more frequently with a duration of two to five days or even longer. This situation may be the norm for the next decade.

The MGMS automates large portions of microgrid functions. This eliminates the need for 24/7 monitoring, and allows the microgrid to buy and sell power to the larger grid.

As most of sat in the dark during a planned shutoff in October 2019-10-08 to 10, the Blue Lake Rancheria became a lifeline for thousands of rural Humboldt County residents: The gas station and convenience store provided fuel and supplies, the hotel housed patients who needed a place to plug in medical devices, saving at least four lives, the local newspaper used the conference room to put out the next day’s edition, and a hatchery continued pumping water to keep its fish alive.

Islanding: The electrical service to BLR was reconfigured to create one point of common coupling (PCC) between the microgrid and the main utility grid. This PCC includes the powerline protections and control functionality required for the microgrid to automatically disconnect from the main grid during an outage, and then reconnect when grid power has been restored. Operators at BLR can also manually island the microgrid for energy management, maintenance, or security reasons. Seamless transitions between connected and islanded states are unnoticeable to building occupants, and have been approved by PG&E.

Optimal battery dispatch: Under normal conditions, the microgrid uses an energy load forecast, the solar availability forecast, and the current electricity rate schedule to determine when to store energy in the battery and when to dispatch it to the main grid.

Resiliency: If the main grid loses power, the microgrid automatically disconnects and begins operating in island mode. When islanded, the microgrid management system (MGMS) prioritizes clean generation — but if needed, the MGMS can also seamlessly bring a 1 MW isochronous backup generator online to support the PV and battery.

Conceptual Microgrid, as provided by Schatz Energy Research Center