Microgrids Electrify Rural Rwanda

This entry is part 1 of 19 in the series Spring - 2015



IN AMERICA, IT’S EASY to take our access to reliable sources of electricity for granted.

We flip a switch and lights flicker on. We plug in a microwave and heat leftovers. Living without electricity sounds preposterous – especially in the year 2015.

But in Rwanda and other developing countries, access to electricity is a luxury primarily available to those who live in metro areas or regional economic hubs. If rural villagers have access to electricity at all, it is often very limited – maybe photovoltaics and a car battery – or provided by noisy and expensive diesel generators. Few, if any, rural villages have a clean energy, utility-style system that supplies power to an entire community.

Researchers at Colorado State University are working to change that. They have embarked on a large-scale project to design, build and install Smart Village Microgrids in rural villages and help communities devise a business model to operate the system once it’s in place. Their goal is to pilot the systems in two Rwandan villages in 2016.

The project has received seed funding through the Catalyst for Innovative Partnerships, a new program sponsored by the Office of the Vice President for Research at CSU.

“The cost of solar panels has decreased so much in recent years and the technology has advanced enough that it’s feasible to consider completely renewable microgrids,” said Daniel Zimmerle, a senior research associate at the CSU Energy Institute who is leading the project. “Even just a few years ago, it would have been cost prohibitive.”

He believes the time is right to introduce a renewable, solar-powered system to Rwandan villages.

The Rwandan government recently launched a major initiative to “electrify” the developing country to bolster its economy and improve the health and fortunes of the nearly 10 million people who live there. Currently, only about 20 percent of the country has access to electricity, and this figure is as low as 5 percent in rural areas.

Much of the country’s population resides in these rural areas, many of which are located hours from paved roads or regional economic hubs. Running transmission lines to bring them electricity is costly. Because of this, Rwandan government is looking towards smaller, community-based microgrids, which generate electricity on site and distribute power to end consumers.

Not only are CSU researchers going to build a functional solar-powered system that can generate and deliver electricity reliably to a village community of 100 to 200 households, they also plan to address social and economic aspects of installing and operating the microgrids.

The Smart Village Microgrid team, which is composed of engineers, economists, social scientists, business professors, industrial technology designers and others from the colleges of Liberal Arts, Business, Agricultural Sciences, Health and Human Sciences and Engineering, have already spent considerable time evaluating how much villagers currently spend on energy, reasonable prices for electricity, and what they would use power for. The team is also looking at who will own and operate the microgrids.

Developing technical capacity is an integral part of the solution. Many developing countries lack people trained to install, maintain and repair sophisticated microgrid technology.

It’s this upfront work and long-term planning that CSU researchers believe will set their project apart.

“A lot of projects that introduce a new technology to the developing world fail because no one has looked at the social and economic aspects,” said Zimmerle, an engineer who has long worked on microgrid technology, “Who is going to operate this and make sure it is maintained? How do you set up a billing system or decide how much people pay? The actual technology is only one piece of it.”

Other CSU researchers involved in the project agree.

“We are trying to design a complete system that will be sustainable long-term for these villagers,” said Dale Manning, a professor of agricultural and resource economics. “To do that, we have to address the social and economic aspects as well.”

Manning, Peter Means, the project coordinator, and other team members spent part of summer 2014 walking through the two villages that may soon get microgrids, surveying inhabitants, locating households and mapping the topography — all of which will help drive the system’s design.

The survey results turned up a wealth of information.

For example, researchers were able to calculate that villagers spend 10 percent to 15 percent of their income on energy-related costs. Most of that was buying kerosene for lanterns and other supplies to light homes at night, but a good portion also went to transporting their cell phones and batteries to the nearest town with electricity and paying to charge them.

“For the people we surveyed, lighting their homes at night was their number one priority if they had electricity,” said Dale Manning. “Their second was being able to charge their cell phones and other batteries. Those are important tools for helping them watch prices for their crops and other goods.”

The research team, with the help of the University of Rwanda and a nonprofit organization known as the Rural Development Interdiocesan Service, plans to survey villagers for the next several years during various stages of the project.

“Most people believe introducing electricity to these areas will have a huge economic impact,” Manning said. “We want to measure that and also how electrification changes the social aspects for these villages.”

The team is also setting up partnerships with the Rwandan government and the University of Rwanda to bring students to CSU. These students will help design and engineer the microgrid and also evaluate and set up a feasible business model. The Rwandan students would not only earn an advanced degree, but also “bring home” a sustainable solution to the electrification challenges facing their region.

“We want to create a power system that can be sustained over the long term and to do that we have to address all of these aspects,” Zimmerle said.