Forest Ink columnist Jim Hilton Forest Ink columnist Jim Hilton

FOREST INK: Microgrids in developing countries have many positive features

Columnist Jim Hilton writes about his experiences with “off the grid” power systems

As I have been adding solar panels and batteries to my off the grid lake property I soon realized that there were certain limitations as to the size of the appliances I could add to my system. Any type of electric appliances with high power demand (stoves, water heaters or any type of heating element) would quickly overload a photovoltaic system (PV), so I had to remain with a propane stove for cooking and wood stove for space heating.

A friend who is also developing an off-the-grid system sent me a link to a very interesting article entitled: Electric pressure cookers and microgrids provide hope in solving the intractable global problem of biomass cooking. The June 2020 article by Lili Francklyn describes how six villages in Tanzania are now participating in an important research project “that could have profound implications for women’s health and the survival of forest ecosystems in developing countries.”

The PowerGen microgrids in Tanzania are all solar PV plus batteries with a backup generator and range from small communities with about 100 connections up to larger sites with 350 connections with 24/7 electricity. Electric hot plates were tried as an appliance but their energy demand was way too high.

Highly insulated Electric Pressure Cookers (EPCs) on the other hand, switch off their power draw once pressure has been reached, and only switch on again intermittently when temperature and pressure start to drop in the pot.

“Now that many rural areas are urbanizing, people are losing access to free wood, and they are being forced to pay real money for fuel. While energy access and clean cooking have traditionally been viewed as two separate challenges, renewable energy microgrids are emerging as a potential solution to both problems.” PowerGen also provides assistance for its customers to finance appliances with nine-month financing plans after a 20 per cent deposit. The $100 for an electric pressure cooker may seem like a steep price for a family living in a remote African village, but it’s already becoming competitive with the cost of charcoal and firewood. The article goes on to explain how electric cooking could make enormous changes in women’s lives, reducing the amount of time spent in front of a stove each day from three hours to one. In many locations women have the added burden of gathering firewood and water, chores that can consume hours every day. Women can now put the pressure cooker on, then walk away from it and do something else. This is a luxury that was unheard of before and also reduces the health implications on all members of the family from fire smoke.

As the authors point out time will tell how well these systems will work compared to huge infrastructure grid systems in the developed countries. While the micro grid systems will not likely supply industrial-level power, they do force the users to adopt efficient appliances and practices along with more independence and less problems from long distance power generation and uncertain power costs.

On a more sombre note, the community lost a valuable member with the passing of Steve Capling on June 22 at the age of 65. He was a well-known, local forest consultant who lived and worked mostly in the central Interior for the past 42 years. He will be remembered for his many activities and interests along with his abundant generosity to many individuals and organizations. He will be missed but not forgotten as he set a high standard for all of us to follow.

Jim Hilton is a professional agrologist and forester who has lived and worked in the Cariboo Chilcotin for the past 40 years. Now retired, Hilton still volunteers his skills with local community forests organizations.

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