More Reliable, More Efficient, More Local

The Challenge: Why We Need Smarter Mini-Grids

Imagine that the sun just set, your kids are doing their homework, and you are preparing food to sell at the market tomorrow. Suddenly, your lights go out. In remote communities using off-grid power systems, these types of service interruptions during peak-use hours are still common. At the same time, communities face significant lost opportunities from system underuse during off-peak hours.
These challenges inspired Green Empowerment and our innovation partners – TONIBUNG in Malaysia and Sibat in the Philippines – to launch our Smart Grid for Small Grids program, developing open source technology that local technicians can use to create more efficient and reliable mini-grids.*

The Technology: Open Source Prototypes Create Solutions and Opportunities

Remote Monitoring

On June 14th 2023, heavy rains and flooding in Buayan Village blocked the intake of their micro-hydro system. Deep in the lush jungles of Malaysian Borneo, Buayan is a Kadazan/ Dusun Indigenous community that built their own community micro-utility and has been managing it for over five years. Normally, in Buayan and communities like it, without enough water flowing into the system, energy supply would go down. With less energy available the town could easily overtax the system and trigger a blackout. 

But last June, Buayan was already piloting our new monitoring technology. Though they were about a day’s journey away, our partner TONIBUNG saw in real-time data that there was a power deficit and alerted Buayan’s operator. The operator cleared the intake and informed the community to switch off non-essential appliances. They avoided a blackout. 

This pilot technology sends data over local networking infrastructure (LPWAN) to areas with cell coverage for upload to the internet, enabling real-time monitoring. To date, we have deployed this monitoring technology in five sites: four existing micro-hydro systems and one solar PV mini-grid, with a combined reach of 1,665 people (280 households) and several institutions. These include 3 churches, 2 schools, 1 mosque, and 3 community halls.

Left: Grace Tio wiring a community hall. Right: Bill from Tonibung and Marius, one of the micro hydro operators in Buayan, helping to install communication test equipment on the powerlines.

Appliance Controllers

Overtaxing a system is a big, obvious risk, but under-taxing a system, while harder to see, is just as insidious. The risk compounds day after day, result in lost income for the micro-utility and therefore system sustainability, as well as domestic/ economic value generation opportunities for consumers.

For instance, imagine you own a construction business. You have a power drill, but you’re not using it because you fear that you might overload your town’s micro-grid by pulling too much energy from the system. Crucially, this is not because there actually is not enough energy, it is because at any given moment, you don’t know if the energy is available or not. A huge amount of generated energy is lost because residents (and appliances) don’t know how much is safe to use. 

Enter our appliance controller prototypes. The appliance controllers are small devices that can be connected between domestic appliances and the wall outlet. The controller can read system frequency changes coming from the outlet to know whether there is enough available energy on the grid to use the connected appliance. They include a visual display similar to a stoplight that shows the user the general available capacity. Green indicates a good level of available capacity, yellow indicates steady but limited availability and red suggests essential usage only. 

Back to your construction company: Now imagine that you could plug your drill into your appliance controller. Green light? Bingo, you just saved yourself hours of hand drilling.

Grace Tio installing an Electric Load Controller.

These controllers’ ability to operate automatically is equally significant for economic opportunities. Want to plug in an extra freezer to store the fish you need to sell at the market? When there is ample power, the appliance controller will allow the device to switch-on, whereas if there is a limited amount of power available the controller will automatically switch the appliance off. Worried about your fish getting too warm? The controllers can prioritize energy consumption for appliances like refrigerators or freezers by monitoring their internal temperatures.

The Opportunity: Filling a Gap in the Market with Ground-Up Innovation

Embarking on this project, people asked us, “Isn’t there already something on the market that can do this?” That’s a fair question, but while current market solutions do exist, they are designed for either much larger systems or for single-user configurations in developed countries which make them either too costly for or incompatible with micro-grid systems in the developing world.

Additionally, a major benefit of creating an open-source solution is that engineers and technicians can assemble these controllers locally.  Local design and assembly increase the impact of the project through technology transfer and reinforce system sustainability by making local repairs more feasible.

Because we are designing this technology with local partners and with input from Indigenous communities, the products meet a true need. This is not speculation; it is ground-up innovation for real gaps in worldwide energy access. 

Our success thus far has not gone unnoticed. We presented our field test results at the Empower a Billion Lives global competition, organized by the IEEE. Competing on a global stage, we were thrilled to receive the $50,000 Automation Track prize, further recognition that there is a true need in the sector for this type of technology.

The Path Ahead: Cost Efficiency, Expansion, & Optimization Strategies

Looking ahead, our next steps include revising our hardware designs to reduce costs and enhance performance. We plan to expand our deployments, particularly as part of the Sabah Roadmap Project, and explore new revenue streams through Distributed-Renewable Energy Certificates (D-RECs). Additionally, we are committed to improving our ability to monitor and optimize battery-backed solar systems, with the ultimate goal of large-scale domestic deployment in pilot communities.

These advancements bring us closer to a future where energy access is not just a possibility, but a reality for all. The positive impacts we’ve already seen in communities like Buayan remind us that local solutions, informed by the people who use them, make a real difference. Together, we can bridge the energy gap and brighten lives, quite literally, in remote villages across the globe.

* Those of you who have followed Green Empowerment for years might be wondering, is this the same as the Electronic Load Controller? Kind of! We started our Smart Grid for Small Grids program in order to build on the success of the open-source Electronic Load Controller project, which is now deployed in 20 villages in the Philippines and Malaysia alone.

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