Guest Post By: Michael Tobias
Achieving a reliable power supply is a significant challenge in remote regions, since fossil fuel deliveries for conventional generation become more difficult. However, renewable generation technologies such as photovoltaic panels and wind turbines can harness local resources, while energy storage ensures a stable power output in the absence of sunshine or wind.
Remote locations have strongly relied on diesel generators, but they come with a high operating cost and complex maintenance. Wind turbines are easier to service, and solar panels are even less demanding.
Hydroelectricity also provides a reliable power supply when site conditions are adequate. However, a hydroelectric plant must accumulate water to provide electricity on demand, and this water could possibly be needed downstream for consumption or irrigation. Hydroelectricity also comes with a significant environmental impact: the facility creates a barrier for aquatic animals and local populations, and the water reservoir may involve flooding an ecosystem.
Synergy Between Renewable Generation and Energy Storage
Solar photovoltaic arrays and wind turbines can now provide electricity at a much lower cost than fossil fuels. This is especially true in islands and remote locations, where fuel delivery expenses are added to the electricity cost. However, fossil fuels are still used widely for a key reason: they can be stored to meet energy needs on demand, something that is not possible with sunlight or wind.
Batteries are such a promising technology in the energy sector because they compensate the weak point of solar and wind power. If a generation system is equipped with batteries, the power supply can continue when the main energy input is unavailable. This configuration is extremely useful in remote locations, requiring no external inputs other than sunlight and wind.
Solar panels and wind turbines with energy storage also have the advantage of being unaffected by geopolitical issues. For example, civil unrest can compromise diesel deliveries to a remote site. On the other hand, sunlight and wind are local resources, and their availability is not limited by human factors.
Lead-acid batteries have been used for many years in off-grid solar power systems. However, these batteries suffer from a short service life, needing a replacement after around 500 charging cycles. Lead-acid batteries are also inefficient, wasting about 15% of the energy stored. Lead batteries do not solve the availability issue in remote sites, since they need replacements an intervals of less than two years.
Lithium-ion batteries have a much longer service life, and many products in the market now offer a service life of over 3,000 cycles. These batteries also have minimal losses when charging and discharging, capable of reaching an efficiency of around 99%. Emerging technologies such as lithium titanate batteries could increase the service life to over 25,000 cycles, making replacements even less frequent.
Creating Power Hubs for Remote Communities
NGO facilities in remote sites can provide more services to surrounding communities if they are equipped with renewable generation and energy storage. When diesel generators are used, every drop counts; however, sunlight and wind are free resources. An NGO facility can be equipped with an oversized renewable energy system, and surplus power can be granted to a local community.
Providing renewable energy to remote rural communities comes with a health benefit. Many households rely on candles or kerosene lamps for lighting, and the particulate matter they release has been linked with conditions like heart disease and lung cancer. Electricity enables a switch to light bulbs, reducing exposure to particulate matter.
Michael Tobias, PE, LEED AP, CEM.
Michael Tobias is the founder and principal of Chicago Engineers, an Inc 5000 Fastest Growing Company in America. He leads a team of 30+ mechanical, electrical, plumbing, and fire protection engineers from the company headquarters in New York City; and has led over 1,000 projects in Chicago, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, Florida, Maryland and California, as well as Singapore and Malaysia.
He is a graduate of Georgia Tech class of 2004, with a Bachelors of Mechanical Engineering with honors. His innovative approach to MEP engineering comes from graduating GE’s Engineering Leadership Program, where he designed wind turbines and biofuel power plant engines. Michael’s passion within design is energy efficiency and green technology. His focus is on integrating MEP/FP engineering design with architecture to create as seamless a system as possible. He is an advocate for green design and technologies, and has designed to both Passive House and Net 0 energy standards. He has spoken numerous times at the AIA, been featured in Georgia Tech’s Alumni magazine, and is an engineering expert on Discovery Channel’s show “Impossible Engineering”.
A New York native, Michael grew up in Rockville Centre, LI. He currently lives in Brooklyn with his wife and children. Outside of work, he enjoys exploring the outdoors, whether it’s on a bike, a pair of skis, or a surfboard. He is passionate about growing personally and professionally every day, and about doing innovative work in the engineering world to help disrupt the traditional construction industry.