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November 17, 2014

Beyond-the-Grid Is Not Just About Light, It’s About Resiliency

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At times when the grid fails, distributed generation offers a way to keep the lights on -- not only in areas beyond the reach of the grid but in cities as well.

People often highlight the cost-effectiveness and rapidity of deploying beyond-the-grid solar solutions. As the story goes, beyond-the-grid solar companies are providing power to rural places in developing countries where the grid hasn’t yet reached and at a lower cost than other available options. But distributed generation has other important benefits: it can offer more reliability than a centralized grid, too.  

Following Superstorm Sandy, which pummeled the eastern seaboard of the United States and the Caribbean and left 8.1 million homes without power, the term “grid resiliency” gained new popularity as utilities and regulators scrambled to think about how to modernize the grid to avoid blackouts in places following superstorms of the future.  

Modernizing the grid wasn’t the only lesson from Superstorm Sandy, though; the reliability of distributed generation solutions was revealed as well.  As Stephen Lacey wrote about in Greentech Media’s e-book, Resiliency: How Superstorm Sandy Changed America’s Grid:  

 “But the [centralized electricity] system didn’t fail for everyone. Scattered throughout the ruin,    tiny pockets of resiliency formed -- proving that smaller, cleaner, distributed technologies can be a  powerful defense against crises on the grid.”

As Lacey’s report shows, existing hybrid-solar storage systems provided power in some devastated areas of New York and New Jersey, and off-grid solar generators provided relief to many people without power as part of relief efforts.     

The resiliency of communities using distributed generation has been proven after other storms as well. This is true both in major cities and in rural areas beyond the reach of the grid.   

A recent example of this was highlighted by Kalluri Bhanumathi, whose coastal city of Visakhapatnam in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh was hit hard by last month’s tropical Cyclone Hudhud.  As Bhanumathi explained, the cyclone brought down trees, telephone poles, and buildings in her city, and left the city without power for a week. This affected other basic services such as water supply and communications as well.

However, Bhanumathi’s family has a 5-kilowatt solar power generation system which continued providing power during and after Cyclone Hudhud. The fact that Bhanumathi’s solar system remained intact meant that her household could maintain their own supply of clean water and cooked food. They had greater resilience to the storm than the rest of the city.      

Emergency responses by the international community to disasters increasingly include bringing beyond-the-grid solar products to disaster-impacted areas. For example, solar streetlamps were brought into tent camps to enhance safety following the massive earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010, and solar lamps were also distributed to thousands of families in the Philippines as part of the relief efforts following Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda).  

While disaster relief efforts are extremely important, we should see more beyond-the-grid solar home systems and lanterns as part of disaster preparedness and resilience-building efforts, rather than simply as a reaction to disasters.  Distributed generation is more resilient in the face of storms like Superstorm Sandy, Cyclone Hudhud, and Typhoon Haiyan (Yolanda).  And while distributed generation has provided niche resiliency for communities hit by major storms, it can form the backbone of power systems for people living beyond the reach of the grid.

As we move into a stormier world, distributed solar can keep people safer -- while keeping the lights on. 

Do you have stories about the impact of beyond-the-grid sources of energy that weathered storms?  If so, please leave them in the comments, email me, or tweet at me (@VrindaManglik).   

--Vrinda Manglik, Associate Campaign Representative, International Clean Energy Access

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