Is containerized energy the solution to the Pacific’s power woes?
Microgrids and containerization can serve the power needs of water-scarce island states in the region.
The demand for electricity in Asia and the Pacific is rapidly growing. An expanding population needs power at home, as do national economies to create employment and reduce poverty.
With environmental sustainability and climate change mitigation and adaptation in mind, ADB is working with its developing member countries to expand and improve access to energy and related services.
Among these countries are archipelagos, both vast ones like Indonesia and the Philippines, and smaller groups of islands such as the Maldives and Pacific island states. Archipelagos face logistical challenges in meeting their electricity and other power infrastructure needs, as remote communities are particularly difficult and costly to service.
These realities help make a strong case for transforming existing energy grids into hybrid renewable energy systems that reach everywhere.
Renewable-based microgrids are a solution that offers uninterrupted power to industries and provides off-grid households with electricity. Microgrids can operate in conjunction with centralized electricity grids to reduce industrial power prices and integrate smart grid solutions including energy storage and smart appliances.
According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance, the global market for microgrids is shifting to Asia and the Pacific. Although wind-based systems were preferred in the past, solar provides just over half of renewable microgrid capacity today. Solar generation is set to dominate off-grid services projects in the region.
The components, structures, and operational characteristics of microgrids vary with resource levels and application purposes including custom-made power supply services. The type of microgrid largely depends on the scenario, but typically fall into one of four categories:
- Independent systems in islands and other remote areas.
- Renewable energy-based systems where there is high penetration of renewables.
- Integrated services in areas with diverse energy sources and demands.
- Highly integrated services in distribution networks with extensive distributed energy.
“Plug-and-play” systems are becoming increasingly important where microgrids need to be easy to install, operate, and maintain without the need for highly skilled personnel for construction, operations, and maintenance.
A modular and scalable plug-and-play microgrid can address growing global demand for flexible technology solutions in an expanding market for distributed power generation. Subdividing systems into small modules is critical with respect to system standardization and achieving price reductions by building economies of scale.
Containerized solutions, featuring a package of renewable generation, batteries, power converters, a control system, cooling and ventilation, and fire protection—all housed in modified shipping containers—are a logical way to achieve economies of scale.
Containerized systems have been used for decades in the telecommunications industry, for instance to deploy data centers and mobile base stations in rural or remote areas.
Standard intermodal freight containers can be shipped anywhere in the world in a period of weeks at relatively low cost. Modular systems can be placed anywhere the services are needed and can be readily expanded and retrofitted as necessary.
They are relevant for both developed and developing countries and can be configured to utilize all types of renewable resources: biomass, geothermal, hydropower, solar, and wind. At least some of these renewable energy resources are available in all ADB’s developing member countries. Declining system costs for solar and wind make them particularly attractive for applications in the Pacific, where renewable energy and energy storage can reduce dependence on petroleum-fired generator sets.
Technology is making containerized solutions increasingly feasible even for far-flung communities. Cloud-based services, for example, are now being incorporated into remote microgrids to secure cost-efficient uninterrupted power supply to isolated areas.
Innovation and rapid cost declines of small-scale renewable generation and battery energy storage are facilitating the adoption of containerized solutions, which can be rapidly deployed and scaled up to provide energy access and related services.
The water-energy nexus is a good example of how an integrated modular approach can address multiple challenges.
Water treatment, including desalination, is critically important in the Pacific, especially in remote islands where naturally occurring potable water may be limited or over-stressed. Desalination processes require stable power supplies that can be provided by microgrids powered by renewables.
A modular desalination plant integrated into a containerized microgrid offers a unique solution for improving energy access and addressing water constraints in such remote locations. Overall control of the desalination operation can be done remotely by an intelligent, integrated energy and process management system.
These types of integrated solutions can be ideal for remote parts of developing Asia. Microgrids and containerization can play a significant role in addressing the desalination and other power needs of water-scarce countries in places that need them most, like the Pacific.