Frontier Markets as Technology Incubators:
Remote Operation of Microgrids

Energy access microgrids and minigrids have been around for a decade or more operating in the most remote regions and providing off-grid power to rural areas. It has been difficult to scale microgrids which were expensive and hard to service. 

In 2014, New Sun Road’s first microgrid project was in Kitobu, Uganda, a fishing village on an island in Lake Victoria. To ensure reliable operations, a robust, cloud-based operating platform was designed and installed for remote management and support. 

But first, what is a microgrid or minigrid?  Basically, it is, as described – a small power grid. Microgrids consist of power generation, (solar, wind, fossil fuel generators), energy storage, (usually batteries), and “loads” or electricity off-takers. 

Microgrids have existed for decades. For instance, the Space Station has a microgrid. These power systems typically used fossil-fuel generators with on-premise operators to provide independent power to infrastructure such as military bases, hospitals, and data centers.

Elements of a microgrid

Frontier markets offer a unique opportunity for technology development and application. With the urgent fundamental need of delivering a robust, exact solution cost-effectively, there is less resistance to a new approach that creates an environment that fosters innovation.

Control technology is moving to the cloud for remote operations and offering access to technical expertise, support, and maintenance which can include over-the-air (OTA) software updates. Access to “infinite” computing power using Cloud + IoT, containerized power system designs, and Single Board Computing (like Raspberry Pi) are game changers. These technologies allow rapid innovation and iteration to reduce cost, improve performance, ensure safety, and verify reliability. The result has been to make microgrid control and remote management more accessible for cost-sensitive but impactful applications like energy access and rural telecom.

Stellar training in Guatemala

Remote management of renewable energy microgrids is rapidly expanding to more mature markets. For decades, US residential solar installations have included remote monitoring at a basic level – but it mostly serves the homeowner to know that their system is working. “Serious” control and operations were reserved for large utility systems with on-site operators, custom SCADA dashboards, and on-premise control.

Climate change and the need to provide rural electricity are driving utilities to think differently and stand-alone power systems (microgrids) offer a solution. In 2021, New Sun Road joined BoxPower to deploy a remote microgrid for PG&E with Stellar Microgrid OS, our remote operating platform. The small hamlet of Briceburg had lost its transmission lines three years prior and PG&E had a choice to rebuild the distribution line through 3 kilometers of rugged, fire-prone terrain, or try something else. The 35 kW stand-alone power system (solar, battery storage, and backup propane generator) operates with New Sun Road’s control algorithms to maximize renewable energy usage, resulting in 90% emissions-free power in 2022. 

PG&E’s stand alone power system in Briceburg, California

Remote operations are expanding possibilities and accelerating deployment. An average sized US residential system is 6-8 kW. In a Frontier market, this can power a community center, a school, or a healthcare facility. In Guatemala, 20 integrated mini-grids are powering women-led Digital Community Centers. Installed in less than a day, these systems are managed as a fleet and include remote monitoring and support to ensure uptime and reduce service costs.

In addition, hybrid solutions (solar paired with a fossil fuel generator), can be a stepping stone to avoid stranded assets while keeping costs down, especially in locations with extreme seasonal variability. By incorporating weather forecasting and load management data, AI can ensure that the use of solar is prioritized.

Electricity is a fundamental utility, but its value comes when it is used for productive purposes – e-learning, food processing and storage, internet connectivity, refrigeration for vaccines, and power for water pumps. Providing clean reliable power creates opportunities, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and makes our world a bit more sustainable.

Much like mobile phone technology leapfrogged over telephone landlines, microgrids with remote operation are poised to not only scale in Frontier markets but to help address the issues of climate adaptation all over the globe. Maturing from that single system in Uganda, Stellar now manages over 900 microgrids to enable reliable, cleaner power in 20 countries.

Learning powerpoint at the Digital Community Center in Guatemala