November 23rd, 2016 by Carolyn Fortuna
The livelihoods of individuals and families living on islands and in remote communities across the globe are directly tied to the availability and price of volatile fossil fuels. In these communities, oil powers the way people interact with virtually every aspect of their daily lives and environments. It propels the ships and trucks that bring in goods from the outside. It enables the tourism industry that keeps many of these local economies afloat. It also powers the electricity system in most of these communities. For well over 100 years, oil has enabled remote communities to generate electricity and experience the benefits of a consistent electrical supply. While non-isolated island communities across the globe are beginning to turn to a diverse supply of resources to generate electricity, most islands and remote communities continue to rely strictly on fossil fuels for electricity and other energy needs.
Such a reliance has left these communities exposed to multiple risks and drawbacks.
- Fossil fuel-based electricity generation is often more expensive and subject to price volatility, including the necessity to lock in prices for years to come;
- Importing fossil fuels puts communities at risk of supply interruption and reduces energy security;
- Small-scale isolated energy generation systems tend to be expensive and difficult to maintain; and,
- Island and remote communities pay some of the highest retail electricity prices in the world.
According to a report by the Rocky Mountain Institute and Carbon War Room, these risks and drawbacks—paired with continuing cost reductions in solar, wind, and energy storage technologies—suggest that an alternative to the fully fossil fuel-based electricity systems is not only now necessary but also achievable.
Island and remote communities from Australian deserts to United Kingdom islands have already transitioned to energy generation with significant renewable penetration. These communities are enjoying the many benefits that come with the transition: operational cost savings, reliable and stable power, long term energy price stability, and reduced dependence on oil.
How can other isolated island and remote communities make the transition to renewable microgrids?
The pathways pursued by isolated islands and remote communities to develop renewable microgrids provide several lessons learned. Communities currently considering such a transition may find several benefits, including reduced costs, diesel usage, electricity prices, operating costs, and subsidies required. Creating a renewable microgrid project is often a difficult and lengthy task that can be made easier with background knowledge of renewable microgrid technologies, processes, and pitfalls.
When efficiently integrated, renewables with reliance on local resources and less on imported fossil fuels enhance microgrid system resiliency and community stability. Microgrids with diverse resource mixes are often less prone to system failure than microgrids that rely on a single resource, since they have multiple resource options for electricity generation. In addition, when renewables are added to the grid, key components like power electronics and control systems enable a more stable grid through better controls.
Energy efficiency is an important component of a renewable microgrid transition and is particularly acute for islands where space for renewable technologies like wind and solar is typically in short supply. Several island and remote communities with renewable microgrids have installed flywheels, batteries, or pumped hydro energy storage systems.
To date, renewables like solar and wind have been integrated into diesel-based island and remote community microgrids at penetrations around 10 to 15 percent of annual electricity consumption without causing operational challenges. Above 20 percent, it has often been necessary to curtail renewable generation, implement demand response or load-shifting programs, or incorporate energy storage.
However, as penetration of renewable energy increases, energy storage—alongside smart controls to enable load shifting—becomes an important component of any community’s transition.
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