Microgrids are being developed in mature industrial markets such as the U.S. to provide premium, high quality clean power to a broad array of customer segments, even more dramatic creativity is occurring on the business model front in developing world markets such as India, Africa and Iraq. Here are three companies moving the needle in terms of technological advances fueling new creative ways to control, finance and implement microgrids.
The first company is SimpliPhi, which got its start in 2002 developing off-grid portable power systems for Warner Brothers and Disney film shoots. The company’s portable power units – “libertypaks” - were used in locations as diverse as the Amazon and New York City. The company then found a home for its technology for the Marine Corp. in forward operating bases in Afghanistan and Iraq, relying upon lead acid batteries and diesel generators, optimized to reduce fuel consumption and save lives.
SimpliPhi has significantly upgraded its technology offering over time. The company now focuses on sophisticated power electronics embedded in its smart inverters to integrate distributed solar photovoltaic (PV) panels with non-toxic lithium ferrous phosphate batteries which offer a thermal energy profile that does not require cooling and which reportedly outperformed Tesla’s Powerwall in head-to-head competition. A typical installation in the developing world is a school in Tanzania. Perhaps its most unique business model is reliance upon an open source, plug-and-play low-voltage 48-volt direct current (DC) power network, making its microgrids a nice fit with low-voltage grids throughout the developing world. Few other companies focus on such low-voltage microgrids.
The second company I’d like to reference is SparkMeter, whose smart meter offering puts most Automated Metering Infrastructure (AMI) deployments by U.S. utilities to shame. Lower in cost than the majority of competing metering options, and with a robust functionality, the combination of hardware and cloud-based interface provides real-time monitoring and adjustments to voltage and frequency issues. SparkMeter offers a platform that that was designed for the off-grid environment, but which can also be deployed in centralized grids. A mobile money or cash-based prepayment system is also integrated into the microgrid platform, allowing vendors to insure cash flows vital to sustainable business ventures in key microgrid markets such as India. The company validates that smart metering is even more important in an off-grid operating environment than in developed economies. Why? In emerging economies, small amounts of electricity are consumed by large numbers of customers with little annual income. It is this kind of technology that is key to making any Bottom of the Pyramid (BOP) energy access strategy work.
Last, but certainly not least, is PowerHive. With recent investments by the likes of the investment arms of French oil giant Total Energy Ventures and diesel generator manufacturer Caterpillar Ventures, the company has announced plans to develop 100 microgrids serving 90,000 people without electricity. This systems will aggregate up to approximately 1 MW. With plans on the boards for microgrid portfolios that could top 500 MW over the long-term, what is the key to the company’s success? A pay-as-you-go business model that, like SparkMeter, depends upon mobile phone payment options. PowerHive’s Honeycomb remote monitoring system underpins the pay-as-you go strategy which it first deployed in 2011, and which has now emerged as the primary business model for BOP deployments around the world.
All three of these companies highlight the innovation required to create viable sustainable energy projects. How can these lessons be applied to microgrid markets in the developed world?