I’ve been reading about off-grid communities lately, and I learned that some of them have community-based businesses. Residents work the business as their job or as a housing trade. Some businesses bring in money to support the common ground and infrastructure or whatever the community offers. Each one is different, but some have income streams.
Since they are off-grid, I thought a micro-grid to power all the buildings would be a great idea. I envisioned a huge array of solar panels that transmits power to homes, outbuildings and businesses. Then I took it further, which means the ‘off-grid’ status would change. The micro-grid could be tied into the local grid to sell power back to the utility and make some money. This could be the community’s income stream.
Micro-grids to define small communities
I started to research this idea, and I discovered that micro-grids are being installed in villages in third world countries. All too often, power is too far away or geography, topography and/or a lack of roads make it impossible or very expensive to bring power in. The solution has been for utility companies, investors and local government to build micro-grids, small community power plants, to bring electricity to dark villages for a fraction of the cost of running power lines over questionable territory.
Solar arrays and back-up diesel generators provide enough electricity day and night for lights, refrigeration and electronics. Schools, homes and businesses benefit from electricity being on at night. Children can study, businesses can stay open longer, and fans can run for comfort, which makes students and workers more productive.
Solar arrays and micro grids in remote areas
I have a friend, Paulo Saiz-Navarro, who is an Environmental Engineer. The firm he works for was recently in Nepal for a year. I was going through his photos on Facebook the other night, and I came upon several shots of solar arrays in tiny villages. I asked him if they were installing micro-grids. He said, ‘Yes, we were!’
The project he is most proud of is a grid installed for the Ilam Tea District, a tea co-op. When I asked him for details, this is what he sent me. It’s probably easier to read his words than for me to try and convey the project.
There are twenty families that own and operate the co-op. All workers have shares. They own almost 1000 acres made up from several small farms joined together. Each family has its own home and 10 acres for vegetables and farm animals. They own the electric co-op, too, and sell electricity to other tea farms that are not part of the co-op and use the profit for maintenance and things like their school and health center.
There are some small gasoline generators in case of emergencies, but they run solar all the time. They power the tea roaster, all buildings and their homes, although many homes have installed their own private solar panels. Pretty amazing. They plan on setting up a bed and breakfast for tourists.
Ilam is across a valley from the Indian tea producing area of Darjeeling, but most Indian tea is in the hands of the large corps. All Nepali tea is produced by co-ops and family farms, as is their coffee.
Micro-grids and community empowerment
This is exactly what I was thinking about for ‘off-grid’ communities in first world countries! Unplug from a job schedule, food that is trucked thousands of miles, banks and other societal expectations. Plug into the grid with a small power plant of renewable energy, and create an income for the community. I think it’s the best of both worlds, and I was thrilled to see that it’s a success in Nepal.