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Wind Power - A Missed Opportunity in Distributed Energy

image credit: STAG-Tech
Joshua Holmes's picture
Marketing Manager STAG-Tech

Leveraging his creative background and 10 years experience in international development programmes, Joshua brings a diverse range of soft-skills and understanding of different groups in his role...

  • Member since 2021
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  • Nov 17, 2021
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Minigrids/microgrids are an important part of the energy transition, estimated to serve around 140 million people by 2040 in Africa alone. But are the current generation sources appropriate to both mitigate climate change and provide energy access for over 760 million people in the developing world still without electricity?

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Solar’s great, so long as the sun’s out

The cost of SolarPV has dropped by 82% in the past decade and the technology is both modular and easy to maintain. For these reasons, solar has become the go-to technology in parts of the world where distributed generation is required to sure-up or replace the utility grid.

The obvious drawback, of course, is that the sun only shines around 12 hours a day along the equator and the wet season further dampens solar generation.

Diesel is cheap to buy, expensive and dirty to run

Due to its low-CAPEX and high market penetration, diesel is the incumbent despatchable generation source for many people and businesses with unreliable grid supply. However, the ongoing fuel costs quickly bring the levelised cost of energy (LCOE) to over 40¢/kWh in much of the world and it’s widely accepted that we need to rapidly transition away from these fossil fuels if we are to reach net zero targets by 2050.

Battery still has a long way to go

The price of lithium-ion battery, although falling, will still be the most expensive distributed energy resource (DER) in most installations for years to come, regardless of where you are in the world. They are having a positive impact in developed nations with higher GDPs and more electric vehicles, but are a painful expense for microgrids in lower-income economies.

The missed opportunity of distributed wind energy

Wind energy, along with solar, will grow five to ten times faster than any other power-generation technology will in the next few years. It’s an excellent complementary energy source to solar PV, as on average, the wind blows more at night and during the wet season

Typically, this growth is skewed towards larger, offshore machines taking advantage of the economies of scale. That’s great news for the energy transition and robust energy grids (largely in high-income economies), but it doesn’t work so well for fragmented and unreliable grid coverage in much of Africa, Asia and Latin America.

So considering its potential, why does wind only feature in 2% of microgrid projects? Well it appears that there simply aren’t that many players in the market and that installers default to the most easily accessible technologies. This could be changing, however, and it makes sense for distributed renewable energy (DRE) installers to research into the benefits of distributed wind technology.

Key factors to success

So what should one look for in a distributed wind energy solution? Here’s a few key points to give you a head start:

  • Wind Resource: The more wind resource you have available, the more energy that can be harvested. Begin by looking at your region’s average wind speed; over 6m/s usually provides a viable site.
  • Easy transportation: It’s hard enough navigating large cranes and articulated lorries to sites with modern access, so for installations in less-developed locations, you need light-weight technology and machinery to be accessible.
  • Correctly sized: If you only require 1MWh of electricity, you want a turbine with a capacity of around 300kW or lower, otherwise you will be losing money as excess electricity is wasted.  
  • Affordable and Effective O&M: Similarly to solar panels, most wind turbines have a 20-25 year lifespan. To maximise cost savings and minimise downtime, you want a solution that can be serviced and repaired by local engineers with parts that are accessible worldwide.

The Bottom Line

If we’re going to reach our net zero and energy access targets we need to implement a wide range of strategies and technologies. Distributed Energy will become an ever more prevalent solution in electrifying the remaining rural populations of the world.

The adoption of wind power in these installations to complement solar is a huge opportunity that is largely being overlooked, as they are an excellent economic, low-carbon alternative to most of the technologies currently on the market. 

By installing distributed wind power, businesses, governments and DRE installers can take advantage of lower electricity costs while improving the reliability and renewable generation of their distributed energy installations.

 

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Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Nov 17, 2021

If we’re going to reach our net zero and energy access targets we need to implement a wide range of strategies and technologies. Distributed Energy will become an ever more prevalent solution in electrifying the remaining rural populations of the world.

How does the right distributed energy vary based on what type of rural? E.g., remote villages in Africa are different than rural areas in western parts of the world. Are the solutions in these instances still similar? 

Joshua Holmes's picture
Joshua Holmes on Nov 18, 2021

Hi Matt, good question - yes the application of distributed wind can be applied worldwide, however motivation is often driven by infrastructure and rationale. 

High-income countries have extensive, established and reliable national grids that provide energy to most rural businesses. However, as climate change effects increase, centralised systems are also disrupted (forest fires in California and winter storms in Texas) which will increasingly motivate municipalities and businesses to invest in Distributed Renewable Energy (DRE) to ensure reliable supply.


In much of Africa and Asia, however, the lack of reliable grid infrastructure and vast distances between some populations, makes distributed energy resources a cost-effective way of reaching universal energy access and stimulate local economic development. Small rural villages with minimal electric demand and federal support, however, may be better served with home-solar systems - at least in the short term.

I hope that answers your question.

Matt Chester's picture
Matt Chester on Nov 18, 2021

Yes Joshua, that's quite helpful. Thanks for the response!

Jim Stack's picture
Jim Stack on Nov 19, 2021

Solar makes the most during dats when people use the most. At night they sleep and use very little. Solar is great. Combined with wind and batteries it is perfect.

Quote= The obvious drawback, of course, is that the sun only shines around 12 hours a day along the equator and the wet season further dampens solar generation.

Joshua Holmes's picture
Joshua Holmes on Nov 19, 2021

Thanks for the input Jim.

A lot of the energy use is actually used towards the end of the day (see one example in the image below), when the light fades and energy/lighting is required for the evening's cooking/studying. Furthermore, many businesses such as mines or agriculture (freezing for example), require round-the-clock energy.

A certain amount of battery is always required, for when there's no sun or wind, but due to its high cost, if it can be displaced with less expensive generation sources, it's win all-round!

 

 Reference hourly electrical energy load profile for rural African... |  Download Scientific Diagram

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