In the public discourse over providing power to every household by December, 2018, inadequate attention has been paid to microgrids, though they are vital for the success of the government’s overall plan. Already, villages in far-flung areas for which the costs of a grid-connected network are prohibitive, are setting up microgrids to meet their power needs.
A ‘microgrid’ is comprised of a low capacity (sub-10 kW) renewable energy-based generator and a public distribution network which supplies the electricity to a target set of consumers, domestic and commercial.
Growing at a CAGR of 17%, the global microgrid market is expected to be worth
$17.5 bn by 2025, Grand View Research has said. The ministry of new and renewable energy (MNRE) has planned at least 10,000 renewable energy-based micro- and mini- grid projects with an average size of 50 kW— the total capacity of 500 MW is expected to come on stream by 2022.
According to a recent report by ICICI Securities, microgrids are gaining traction due to “problems of an unreliable utility grid, easy access to new off-grid customers, lower capex costs, and lower emissions.”
The Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs recently approved Phase-III of the Off-grid and Decentralised Solar PV (Photovoltaic) Application Programme for achieving additional 118 MWp capacity by 2020. It aims to set up solar power plants of up to 25 kilowatt-peak (kWp) capacity. About 40 lakh rural households are expected to benefit from the move.
Solar microgrids with an aggregate capacity of 1,899 kWp have been installed in 63 villages so far. Under the decentralised solar PV programme, the ministry had funded 30% of the costs of installing microgrid systems in rural areas of the country, Power Minister RK Singh informed Parliament earlier this year.
The Ladakh region has installed 110 solar microgrids with a total capacity of about 21 kW, receiving assistance from Global Himalayan Expedition, an NGO. The Prime Minister’s development package for Jammu & Kashmir, announced in 2017, envisages installation of 20,013 street- lighting systems, 55,000 home lighting systems and solar power plants with aggregate capacity of 2,100 kWp at 401 locations in Kargil — all based on off-grid technology. In Jharkhand, Azure Power would be electrifying 320 households across 11 villages through such grids.
Microgrids are also being used in commercial or industrial parks as back-up power. Swiss firm ABB’s India unit recently set up a solar microgrid with storage facility at its Vadodara plant (pic). Subhag Jain, founding partner at Kaho, a solar lighting systems company, feels “the government should freeze the basic technical specifications of these products to maintain quality standards and make buying of India-made lithium ion batteries mandatory”.
Though the traditional grid enjoys far greater flexibility with respect to demand and supply, technological advancements are making off-grid solutions increasingly viable in remote areas. While skeptics say the microgrid model could face a threat once the main grid becomes smarter, this is unlikely to happen soon. “Demand forecasting is not on a scientific platform yet,” a power sector veteran explains.