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A beautiful future for small grids

According to reports, the academic buildings of the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Kozhikode, are located on top of a steep hill. Even geared bicycles can climb up the slope only with difficulty. As a result, scooters and motorcycles abound on campus but there are no bicycles.

Walking up the winding road is a strenuous exercise. It also takes time. The destination is in sight but is reached only with much huffing and puffing. The humid weather makes the climb sweaty and uncomfortable.

But the winding road can be avoided by taking a stairway with handrails that goes for about 150 feet, with occasional flat stretches. It’s the faster way to go up or down.

It passes through heavy foliage and invites climbers to stop to admire the sights and to catch their breath. It’s not usable at night due to snakes and scorpions being sighted.

For a week now, though, solar-powered LED lights — 22 lamp-posts, each about 12 feet high, and evenly spaced along the path — have illuminated this stairway. A 0.75 kW panel installed on the roadside charges the batteries that light up the lamps, which automatically turn on at sunset and shut off with daylight.

At night, they lend a new beauty to the hill — dark all around yet a lighted path going upward into the sky and down towards the Milma store, Kerala’s milk cooperative dairy outlet.

At any given spot on the path, only about 3 or 4 lights are visible due to the greenery and the turns.

The pedestrian needs to keep faith — every few steps reveal a new lamp-post, and the next stretch of the path.

This lighting solution is standalone, self-sufficient, and untethered to the State electricity grid, the campus’s admittedly small yet first “off-grid” project.

The next steps were obvious — lighting additional pathways across the campus. Solar panels on rooftops could charge UPS batteries supporting computer networks, and power fans and lights for offices and classrooms. They heat water for hostel bathrooms and for cooking in the kitchens.

Does the economics work? It does, for the costs of solar photovoltaics have fallen dramatically in the past three years, while grid electricity prices will go up due to coal shortages, pricing of emissions, and growing demand.

India’s electricity demand will inevitably grow; per capita electricity consumption in the country (90 watts/person) is about a quarter of China (395 watts/person), and about a fifteenth of the US (1,402 watts/person).

Emerging economies such as India and many African nations have little legacy infrastructure — they are ideal sites for new experiments.

Campuses, in fact, will be the preferred first locations for next generation electricity services through microgrids. They have concentrated populations on private land, and thus the fewest regulatory barriers. A worthy goal for them would be to go “off-grid” — independent of the electricity grid, using it only as backup.

All educational and corporate campuses (IIT, NIT, IIM, engineering colleges) can substitute for traditional power in stages, counting progress as percentage of the power supply supplanted by renewable energy, and the corresponding electricity bill savings, year after year, for the next several years.

Further, can solar canopies at campus parking lots charge e-bicycle batteries? E-bicycles can climb IIM-Kozhikode slopes — fuel-lessly, noiselessly and cleanly.

Students have estimated the capacity and costs of the solar panels and batteries required to make this happen. They have designed e-bikes as part of class assignments.

Solar energy solutions on campus serve as a laboratory for entrepreneurial experimentation; for studying technical aspects of panels, batteries, inverters, networking, and demand management; and for understanding product development, positioning and marketing.

As regulated monopolies, today’s utilities offer electricity to all customers in assigned geographies. Micro electric utilities may not be so constrained. What will today’s utilities do to counter this competition?

In 15 years, we may expect tens of thousands of microgrid-based small utilities because the economics of power generation no longer depends on scale; small plants can be as cost-effective as large ones. And it takes less money to begin producing electricity; the barriers to entry have fallen.

Will the new companies focus on particular segments across a large geography, say, street lighting or residential solar deployments, across a state or nation?

Or will they concentrate on many solutions in a particular, smaller geography, that is, a one-stop-shop for everything solar in a town — from residential power to street lighting, and water pumps for irrigation to powering cellular towers?

How electric utilities evolve remains among the most gripping, unfinished, and suspenseful stories in the industrial history of our time.

As a result of contending regulatory, technological and business issues, the new electricity will be clean, economical, reliable and universally available, in rural markets and urban alike; and from a number of suppliers, including the incumbent utility.

Campuses as optimal battlegrounds will lead the way.

(The author is Visiting Professor of Strategy, IIM-Kozhikode.)

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