Rethinking the Power of the Grid

on April 20, 2015 at 10:00 AM

chris india1

Our reliance on electricity is nothing new, but in the era of global connectivity and the burgeoning mobile economy, our dependence on power has grown dramatically. This is especially true in developing countries, where the growth of mobile has opened up economic frontiers and brought new opportunities.

Sadly, all of that progress can be undermined by power grids that struggle to meet the growing demand. The lack of a stable grid infrastructure in rapidly developing nations like India has translated to massive power outages and reliance on back-up energy solutions fueled by diesel generators and batteries.

What’s more, India’s chronic energy shortage has slowed the country’s naturally booming economic growth and left nearly half of Indian homes without electricity for as much as 12 hours a day. Similar realities confront numerous other developing nations that could otherwise be economic powerhouses.

It is clear that a rethinking of the power grid is in order. And it’s not just economic opportunity that’s at stake. The frequent power outages in India and other developing nations also result in problems with social inclusion as smaller rural communities become more disconnected from the wider society. There simply is no reason that with the alternative energy technologies now at our fingertips, opportunities — and indeed, progress — should be lost to power failure.

On the plus side, the latest Climatescope report, a global assessment of climate-related investments, found that developing countries are tapping renewable energy at twice the pace of wealthier nations. While this is clearly a positive development, the scale of adoption is nowhere near what’s needed to address the problem in a substantial way. Despite the challenges, the growth of mobile in India and other developing nations has continued undeterred, creating even more strain on the grid.

Some 70 percent of India’s more than 400,000 telecom towers experience electrical grid outages of at least eight hours a day, and mobile operators have mitigated this by consuming more than 2.5 billion liters of diesel annually. This is clearly not environmentally sustainable, and following the nation’s deregulation of diesel prices last year, it’s also now much less economically viable.

To help combat this situation, industry leaders are exploring how to lay the groundwork for hydrogen fuel cells to provide backup or replacement power to telecom towers in India which are at the mercy of an unreliable grid.

Other renewable energy sources also figure prominently into solving this problem. For instance, Ethan Zindler, a Bloomberg New Energy Finance analyst, says solar power could shore up a spotty grid infrastructure and cut wholesale power costs in half in a country like Jamaica. Similar grid improvement and cost savings could also be achieved with wind power in Nicaragua, Zindler says.

Big data also figures prominently in an energy-efficient future. By combining the adoption of renewable sources with the abundant data flows generated by sensors in modern power-delivery equipment, providers can create and deliver electricity more efficiently, and with fewer byproducts.

While each of these technologies is an important component of a re-imagined power grid, meeting the world’s growing demand for electricity will require expansive adoption of more efficient and cleaner power sources. From water purification plants and irrigation systems to data centers and ATMs, renewable and sustainable energy sources promise to deliver cleaner energy while simultaneously cutting costs and reducing both the occurrence of outages and creation of pollutants. Economic growth untethered by energy limitations is no longer an optimist’s dream; instead, it’s about to become a reality for countries like India.

Dr. Henri Winand is the CEO of Intelligent Energy