Assistant Professor Jay Taneja and his graduate student June Lukuyu, both of the Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) Department, have collaborated with researchers at Duke University and Carnegie Mellon University to publish a long article on the Brookings Institution website about their research studying the potential for “microgrids” to provide power to millions of people in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
According to the U.S. Department of Energy, a microgrid is a small network of electricity users with a local source of supply that is usually attached to a centralized national grid but is able to function independently.
Taneja summarizes the promise of microgrids in developing countries by saying that “As new architectures emerge for providing electricity access, microgrids present a tantalizing balance between the agility of market-driven, distributed electricity systems and the incredible economies of scale of grid-based systems.”
Taneja runs the STIMA Lab in the ECE department. His research team studies smart electricity grids in sub-Saharan Africa, planning for electricity grids, and microgrid risk modeling, among other research.
Taneja and Lukuyu co-wrote the Brookings article with Rob Fetter of Duke and Nathan Williams at Carnegie Mellon, and the very enlightening piece was titled “Can microgrids enable macro development?”
As the Brookings article explains, in part, “Developers, donors, and customers are increasingly interested in the potential for microgrids to provide power to hundreds of millions of people who lack it, particularly in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. Grid infrastructure is expensive to construct and often subject to routine load-shedding and outages that can last for days or longer, harming homes, businesses, and public facilities.”
The article goes on to explain that increasingly popular solar home systems provide power for common uses such as lighting, mobile phone charging, and even refrigeration, but are insufficient for many commercial applications.
The four authors observe that “Microgrids offer the right combination of affordability, reliability, and capacity to service areas that need more power than a home solar panel can provide, but do not have enough load density for the central grid. So investments in microgrids are on the rise, with over $250 million in public debt commitments in sub-Saharan Africa alone, set to leverage over $4 billion in total investment.”
In that context, the researchers from these three universities are partnering with: private microgrid developers; CrossBoundary, a financial services firm with offices in Nairobi; and Energy4Impact, an NGO that helps to develop energy businesses. Their collective purpose is to evaluate the effects of various business model experiments in several dozen microgrids.
“The initiative is the Mini-Grid Innovation Lab, the first of its kind,” explain the researchers. “One experiment involves offering low-cost financing for customers to take up appliances for home or business use—from televisions and speaker systems to refrigerators and hair clippers—inspired in part by research demonstrating latent demand for home appliances among rural consumers and similar state-sponsored efforts in the newly electrified rural United States in the 1930s. Unlocking latent demand could increase consumption and average revenue per user, the critical metric driving economic sustainability for microgrid operators.”
As Taneja explains his own personal research, “I study the application of computing tools to measuring and managing infrastructure in industrialized and developing regions, including energy and building systems, but also transportation, water, and sanitation systems. In my work, I develop and apply embedded/Internet of Things and mobile systems and machine learning techniques.”
The Brookings Institution is a nonprofit public policy organization based in Washington, DC. Brookings says its mission is “to conduct in-depth research that leads to new ideas for solving problems facing society at the local, national, and global level.” (July 2019)