A few months ago, I began a series of weekly blog posts sharing my trials and tribulations as I attempted to design, build and operate a grid-interactive, battery back-up system with solar panels in Nigeria. Unfortunately, the project hit some delays back in January, so the blog series was placed on hiatus for a while. (I figured you didn’t want to read the following blog update: “Week 10 – Still no movement. I’ll update next week.”) Well, the good news is that the project has begun moving again, and this time at a frenetic pace. The equipment is en-route to Nigeria, and the project is on-pace to be installed and commissioned in August of 2013. (Holy cow! That’s next month! I better stop writing blog posts and make sure everything is ready to go…)
I want to bring you all up to speed as to what’s been going on, and as to the latest developments, but first, let me address the President of the United States directly:
Dear President Obama,
Dude! What the heck? Bringing power to the people in Africa was totally my idea! And, now I see you’re in the news touting your idea for bringing electricity to Africa (http://www.ventures-africa.com/2013/06/obama-unveils-africas-new-7-billion-power-plan/). How can you steal my idea and not at least throw some props my way? I’ve been working on designing, installing and operating a grid-interactive, battery back-up system with solar panels that’s going to allow a restaurant in Nigeria to cut their generator and diesel usage by over 60%. Here’s all the blogs I wrote on the subject:
Just because you can through around funding amounts like “$7 Billion” (http://www.ventures-africa.com/2013/06/obama-unveils-africas-new-7-billion-power-plan/) and I can only claim the one $100K system I’m working on, doesn’t mean you can just steal my idea. Dude! I’m so pissed at you, than I might actually print out this letter and mail it to you! [You live somewhere on Chicago’s south side right? Jamail lives down there too. Do you know him (https://power2switch.com/about/team)?]
Anyways, I guess you’re trying to do the right thing, so I can’t really be mad at you for too long. And, it’s going to help all those people, so as long as it gets done, I think I’ll be able to live with people thinking it was your idea. (But, you and I will both know that it was my idea first!)
Since you’re new to this “electricity to Africa” thing, I feel like I should share some of my experiences and lessons learned in my time working on this, my idea. If we team up on this, we just might be able to get it done! First, I highly recommend reading the blog posts I wrote previously. It’ll give you a good idea of what to expect “on the ground”. Second, the problem is a very big one, and it involves both improvements in the generation side and in the transmission side of the electrical grid. This will require a ton of money, and you’ll be hard pressed to stretch your $7 billion in funding to be able to fix all of it. Even if private companies like General Electric and Symbion Power put in an additional $9 billion, you’ll still be far from your goal. That amount of funding might be enough to get a decent electrical grid operating in Nigeria. But, you have big plans of electrifying all of Africa on that funding. I like the way you think, but we’re going to need to think out of the box if we’re going to get there. To paraphrase John F. Kennedy:
“We choose” to bring electricity to Africa “in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard”.
So, let’s get started. With the electrical grid in Africa, we have a chance to go back to the drawing board, and create something completely new. I’m not talking about doing something we’ve never done before, but I’m talking about taking the lesson we’ve learned from running our electrical grid here in the United States, and completely re-thinking how it should operate. Let’s face it Mr. President, we’re faced with an antiquated electrical grid that wasn’t really designed for the two-way flow of electricity and data that we’ll be asking of it in the near future with all the renewable energy resources we want to incorporate. What I’m envisioning is to leverage the existing grid infrastructure, but to add to it so that it is even more robust, dynamic and resilient than the U.S.’s electrical grid. If we do this right, utilities here will be envious of the electrical grid in Africa. Just imagine that!
What I’m calling for is three things:
1.) Support the inclusion of distributed generator throughout the electrical grid
2.) Interconnect the distributed generation throughout the grid
3.) Replace the current diesel generation with renewables
If every building could generate most of their electricity right there, you won’t need to spend a ton of money on transmission lines to get the electricity to where it’s needed. (Have you priced transmission lines lately? They’re running somewhere between $1 million to $10 million a mile! With our budget, we only have enough money for 2 nuclear power plants (~$6 billion each), one transmission line from north to south, and one transmission line from east to west. It’s barely going to put a dent in the problem!) The electrical grid in Nigeria is already distributed – every person who can afford one is running a diesel generator. So, it’s not a significant departure from what they’re already doing.
The electrical grid that should be built should be able to accommodate all of this distributed generation, and should allow them to feed electricity into the grid when it’s needed. This is going to require the establishment of certain standards for the equipment that’s going to be interconnected, and is going to require the development of some way to balance supply and demand. You can use the interconnection standards from the U.S. or Europe as a start, but the control piece is going to be a little tricky. But, if you mandate the use of some sort of “inverter” at every location, those are already built with SCADA capabilities, so it shouldn’t be too difficult to have these all communicate with one another. Plus, inverter-based systems are capable of correcting grid fluctuations at the local level, which is a much more efficient way of doing things (than even the way we correct these issues in the U.S.). And, so long as the owners of this distributed generation were adequately compensated, I don’t foresee an issue with them being a part of the solution.
Eventually, replacing more and more of the distributed generation with renewable resources like solar or fuel cells should become the goal. The system I’m designing for the restaurant is going to run $100K all in, and going to reduce their diesel consumption by 60%. It’s going to include a battery back-up and a 30 kW PV system. The electricity from the PV system will power the restaurant during that day, and the battery bank will store grid power when it’s available for use when the grid is not. The generator will only run if the electrical grid is not available, the PV system is not producing enough electricity, and the battery bank doesn’t have enough charge. It’s a much better and cleaner system, and they’re going to pay off the initial capital cost of the system in about 5 years. In Nigeria, they typically run their generators so hard that they’re used to replacing them every 4 years or so. The system I’ve designed is guaranteed for 5 years, and the major components (solar panels, inverters, etc.) are warranted for much longer than that. Plus, since they won’t be using the generator as much, they’ll probably get 7 to 10 years out of it.
“But, wait, this system makes economic sense and is better for the environment!”
Mr. President, that’s exactly what I’m saying!
(In all fairness, I’m plagiarizing my own blog post from a few months back: https://power2switch.com/blog/how-electricity-grew-up-part-6-and-the-grid-of-tomorrow/. I highly recommend reading it.)
This first system I designed is going up shortly, so if want to take a look at it and see how it works, just let me know. (I’d invite you to the installation site, but I’ll have to get approval from the owner of the building before I can have you on-site.) But, feel free to stop by the Power2Switch offices next time you’re in town.