Play a Game to Design a Rural Microgrid

Jan. 6, 2017
In developing countries, a major challenge to the success of a rural microgrid is gathering enough information about the community and its needs. Here’s how a new game can help.

In developing countries, a major challenge to the success of a rural microgrid is gathering enough information about the community and its needs.

To overcome this hurdle, Energy Action Partners has created a game—now in the testing phase.

Called The Minigrid Game, it works by bringing together potential microgrid users, developers and policymakers to think through the non-technical issues that will determine how the microgrid will be used. The game also can teach students or other interested parties about the issues that affect microgrid development.

The company uses the term minigrid, which generally refers to systems that can isolate from the grid and are sized in the 7 kW to hundreds of kilowatts range.

“Typically minigrids are in small communities, disconnected from the grid, and sized in the hundreds of kilowatts,” said Scott Kennedy, executive director of Energy Action Partners, which aims to help communities gain access to electricity.

The challenges addressed by the Minigrid Game include setting appropriate prices for a microgrid’s output, energy theft, underpayment of energy bills, appropriately sizing the system, meeting the reliability expectations of the users, and creating a sense of ownership in the microgrid, said Kennedy. Participants role-play to examine issues that affect the community and microgrid.

“We wanted to recognize that many communities have existing norms or practices to manage common resources,” Kennedy said.

For example, a farming village with a single water source generally has tools and practices for managing water. Microgrids often don’t have such tools or practices, but they can be developed using The Minigrid Game.

As they role-play, participants create scenarios that challenge the system, including power outages caused by high demand and storms that damage the system.

If one system user consumes much more than others, should that user have a different pricing system or be subject to penalties? The players discuss such scenarios to help design the system.

“In a water context, this is worked out; you may differentiate based on use, or give punishments for over-consuming,” Kennedy explained.

Players work together to make decisions about purchasing appliances and managing their finances to pay their bills, for example. When one player switches appliances on and off, or doesn’t pay a bill, these actions are visible to all the players.

The Minigrid Game is cooperative; the player wins only when the community as a whole makes important decisions, such as sizing the system and setting a tariff that pays for its cost. The players must overcome surprises such as hurricanes or unexpected sources of income.

“This is meant to be engaging and provide an experiential understanding of microgrids. It gives people an open space for discussion, and allows them to translate existing norms and practices into management of the minigrid,” said Kennedy.

The game was initially developed with the rural microgrid in mind. However, it is gaining attention in the U.S., and could be used, for example, in New York City, where leaders want to enhance resiliency, said Kennedy. Energy Action Partners could change the game slightly for use by a neighborhood association to educate people about costs, available capacity, and how an individual’s behavior can affect the entire system.

Rural microgrid in Somaliland

In a separate venture, the company, through one of its affiliates, is developing a rural microgrid in Somaliland for a school.

Before the company got involved, the school had a 20-kW wind turbine with a 20-kW diesel generator and some battery storage. However, the wind turbine wasn’t working and the school had to manually switch between the diesel generator and wind power because there was no controller.

“We’re helping them upgrade to 20 kW solar, to keep the storage and generator, but integrate them with an inverter and main control unit to help it operate seamlessly between the different sources,” Kennedy said. “Then it can operate as a microgrid.”

The company started its microgrid work at the school because two of its cofounders used to teach there and received a grant to upgrade the energy system, he noted. But Energy Action Partners wants to continue to develop microgrids in the area.

In that region, about 11 wind turbines aren’t working.

“None of them are working because they had a foreign firm install them and then left. It’s an example of what goes wrong when there’s no local capacity to maintain them. We want to avoid that with solar,” said Kennedy.

As it enters the market, the company sees itself as taking a holistic approach to creating microgrids.

“We are not an organization with a single portfolio of technology solutions; we’re more focused on energy access and development and trying to get a holistic understanding of electrification, and economic and social development,” he said.

There’s no charge right now to use the game, which is still under development. Energy Action Partners is paying for its microgrid project with grants and crowdfunding, said Kennedy.

Read more about rural microgrid development on Microgrid Knowledge.

About the Author

Lisa Cohn | Contributing Editor

I focus on the West Coast and Midwest. Email me at [email protected]

I’ve been writing about energy for more than 20 years, and my stories have appeared in EnergyBiz, SNL Financial, Mother Earth News, Natural Home Magazine, Horizon Air Magazine, Oregon Business, Open Spaces, the Portland Tribune, The Oregonian, Renewable Energy World, Windpower Monthly and other publications. I’m also a former stringer for the Platts/McGraw-Hill energy publications. I began my career covering energy and environment for The Cape Cod Times, where Elisa Wood also was a reporter. I’ve received numerous writing awards from national, regional and local organizations, including Pacific Northwest Writers Association, Willamette Writers, Associated Oregon Industries, and the Voice of Youth Advocates. I first became interested in energy as a student at Wesleyan University, Middletown, Connecticut, where I helped design and build a solar house.

Twitter: @LisaECohn

Linkedin: LisaEllenCohn

Facebook: Energy Efficiency Markets

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