Carnegie Mellon PhD Student Increasing Financial Feasibility of Microgrids
A new economic model for rural microgrid implementation is being explored as Carnegie Mellon University graduate student Nathan Williams conducts his doctoral research on enabling the financial feasibility of rural microgrids in developing countries. Microgrids are small-scale electrical generation and distribution systems that deliver power in a small region near the power sources. Microgrids stand in stark contrast to typical macrogrid infrastructures, which transmit electricity over high-voltage transmission networks that connect very large power plants to load centers that can be hundreds or even thousands of kilometers from the generators. Macrogrids proliferated in the developed world because they offer excellent economies of scale.
Although the economies of scale make traditional macrogrid systems seem preferable in theory, the cost and detrimental impact of building high-voltage transmission networks to reach remote rural areas makes it compelling to consider new paradigms in the developing world. Furthermore, the relatively low energy demand in rural Africa make such investments unattractive. Microgrids can be constructed to provide power in rural areas immediately without the large transmission and distribution investments required by the macrogrid. They can be interconnected over time to create more efficient local networks, and can eventually be connected to the national macrogrid. But even then, they offer the possibility of “islanding” and operating independently whenever the macrogrid fails or becomes unavailable. Carnegie Mellon University’s Rwanda Director Bruce Krogh believes that the current electricity landscape in Rwanda is exciting because they don’t have to deal with legacy systems. “This is a chance to build a truly smart grid from scratch. Information and communication technology can be leveraged from the outset to meet Rwanda’s growing energy needs with a distributed network of diverse power sources that is reliable, extensible and economically and environmentally sustainable.”
Nathan, who is pursuing his PhD in Engineering and Public Policy, is researching an implementation of microgrids that can increase economic feasibility by using cell towers as anchor customers to improve the economic sustainability of microgrids. Nathan believes that there is a logical incentive for cell tower operators to enable energy access in surrounding communities through microgrids, since increased energy access will unlock more mobile customers in surrounding villages to utilize mobile services due to increased affordablity and convenience of cell phone charging. Beyond the benefits to its customers, more efficient use of energy generation resources coupled with revenue from electricity sales can reduce the net cost of providing energy to the tower itself, which by some estimates represents 40% of monthly operating expenses for mobile network operators. A deep societal benefit comes from the expansion of electricity access to rural households, businesses and public services, which has the potential to stimulate local social and economic development. With more than 45,000 off-grid cell towers currently spread across Africa, the potential reach of the model is enormous.
For Nathan, Rwanda is an ideal place to conduct his research because of Carnegie Mellon’s exceptional integration into the country. In his opinion “Rwanda is a great case study because CMU has a strong relationship with institutions in Rwanda. For example we have good access to data. CMU’s Rwanda initiative is one of the reasons that attracted me to CMU in the first place. It is quite unique, it showed that the university had interest in the developing world.” As the first major research institution to have an African program with full-time faculty being based within Rwanda, Carnegie Mellon University’s presence in Africa is a new feature of the global academic landscape, working to enable an increase in the quality and ingenuity of research based from the continent.
Nathan’s project has additional benefits for Carnegie Mellon University beyond research. Professor Paulina Jaramillo, who is Nathan’s primary advisor in the Department of Engineering and Public Policy (EPP), suggests that Nathan’s project offers the opportunity to establish a link between the Rwanda campus and EPP—a link that is sure to expand in coming years.
CMU in Rwanda