Solar Nano-Grids (SONG): An appropriate solution for meeting community energy needs?
Since the first solar home system was introduced in Bangladesh in 1996, two million more have been installed throughout the nation under a massive programme initiated by the government of Bangladesh (through two principle organizations, IDCOL and Grameen Shakti), with the help of financing from international funding bodies. The research undertaken by the SONG team will be looking at the social, political and technical environments in which solar/PV equipment is deployed, with a view to developing a flexible solar array called a nanogrid.
Research with our partners in Bangladesh will act as a comparator to research undertaken by a second set of partners in Kenya, where in the past two decades a differently-promoted but rapidly growing solar sector has connected about 300,000 homes to solar/PV systems. The research from both these pioneer countries will be used to work out the best practices involved in making solar/PV harmonize with the interests of low-income communities and households, to enhance the roll-out of solar as a key player in the renewable energy sector.
The increasing success of SHS over recent years is undoubted. What is clear however, is that, whilst a household undoubtedly gains developmental benefits from purchasing or hiring a SHS e.g., removing the air pollution caused by kerosene lamps, providing light for children or other members of the household to study, enhanced security, access to information etc., the degree to which this addresses the poverty of the members of the household, their ability to generate income, is far less clear. Also, a body of research has arisen over the same time period, to suggest that energy access provision is insufficient as a driver of development by itself and where energy access projects are implemented without taking into account the complex socio-cultural background of such projects, they may do as much harm as good. Additionally, this situation arises while more and more governments, donors and institutions are examining the potential of decentralized energy systems, in terms of systemic efficiency, cost and governance.
Within this context, the SONG research team is investigating the concept of Solar Nano-Grids as one potential mechanism for addressing some of the socio-economic limitations concerning SHS. The nano-grid is based on the fundamental concept of the SHS, where the basic households‘ energy needs are met and additionally, through the enhanced solar connectivity that Solar Nano-Grids provide, they offer flexibility and capacity to power some small-scale agricultural or industrial applications, like irrigation (without the levels of complexity and cost involved in larger-scale mini-grids).
The primary activities and outputs of the SONG project have been:
– Evaluating the potential of Solar Nano Grids in rural Bangladesh and Kenya: Evaluating social, technical and economic points of view as a more effective means to bring electricity to different types of rural communities than has been possible with SHS implementation.
– Develop, implement and evaluate community nano-grids: Overcoming the limitations of SHS identified through empirical research in a variety of contexts in Kenya and Bangladesh.
– Develop effective business models for scaling up: Taking into consideration country-specific contexts for SHS business development. Prototypes for the enhancement of readily available components are being developed in laboratories where some of the most cutting edge technology in the world is developed – Oxford University, Loughborough University and Nottingham University.