Open Source Tech Improves Microgrids in Southeast Asia

July 31, 2020
In Southeast Asia, workers manually control the flow of water in microgrid hydro systems. Green Empowerment is promoting open source technology to make the process safer and more efficient.

In villages in Southeast Asia, a person often must sit inside a powerhouse to manually control the flow of water in small hydro microgrids to ensure the systems operate safely.

“The operator will watch the system parameters and open or close the valve to the turbine to regulate the flow of water and therefore quantity of energy generated as the demand changes,” said Dan Frydman, project engineer for Green Empowerment, which aims to boost access to renewable energy in Southeast Asia and elsewhere. It’s not easy to do this 24/7 and meet high standards, he said.

Green Empowerment is bringing open source technology to Southeast Asian villages to help ensure these communities have the tools needed to operate micro hydro-systems and other electronics safely and more efficiently.

With open source technology, local people can build the technology themselves and develop products they can sell locally. They can also share knowledge that allows people to learn from one another.

The run-of-river hydro systems in these communities are small, in the range of 20-100 kW, and generally have one point of power production. They’re seen as microgrids because they’re not connected to any national grid and are owned and operated by the communities they serve.

Balancing supply and demand electronically

Villagers turning on just a few too many appliances can spark problems, and micro-hydro operators might have to work in pitch black to reconnect breakers.

Micro-hydro systems need some kind of control system to balance the generated energy with demand. While this can happen manually, another option is to use an electronic load controller (ELC) with a fixed water flow rate and fixed power generation. The ELC systems can balance power on the electrical side by dumping excess energy into a heating element, basically wasting it to keep the system balanced, said Frydman.

“Electronic load controllers are used when automatic flow control is considered too costly to implement based on the capacity of the system. Electrically speaking this means you get a steady 50/60Hz instead of a supply with varying electrical parameters or turbines which can go into runaway speeds,” he explained.

But equipping these communities with this type of smart technology can be expensive.

To help bring reliable renewable energy to these regions, Green Empowerment just completed a project that provided open source ELCs to communities in seven remote villages, benefiting more than 1000 people.

Smart grid for small grids

In a new project, Green Empowerment is now looking at providing open-source load management systems to regulate non-essential consumer demand. This would make these small systems with limited capacities more reliable and would optimize the utilization and cost of the systems. The organization’s work is much like smart grid technology that’s now being implemented in the US and Europe on larger grids, Frydman said.

Overall, the goal is to supply technology that boosts the accessibility, efficiency and reliability of low-cost community energy systems. In addition, the organization aims to increase local manufacturing and skills so that projects can be managed locally.

“This will have applications on small capacity grids across renewable technologies,” Frydman said. “Both the completed project and the upcoming project are intended to be built in situations where budgets are limited, however as the technology is and will be open source, anyone can also use, modify and contribute to make improvements,” he said.

The organization has supplied its low-cost load controller systems to micro-hydro operators working with indigenous communities in Malaysian Borneo and the Philippines, where local people have manufactured and installed their own units, cutting costs and improving the sustainability of their projects. Green Empowerment has also provided in-person training and support to micro-hydro operators in numerous countries across Southeast Asia.

See the open source design materials here .

With the new project, Green Empowerment is essentially creating a demand management system that allows certain non-essential consumer appliances to react to how much power is available.

“This should help the system operate with a higher utilization factor and enable consumers to use more appliances without risk of overloading their installations,” said Frydman.

Under the project, devices are categorized as either primary or secondary. During off-peak periods, the system can activate the secondary loads. “This increases the use of available power for social and economic value activities,” he said.

This also allows more appliances to operate without glitches on small capacity systems. And it can provide insights into the performance of the micro-hydro systems over their lifetimes and help predict maintenance requirements.

The work of Green Empowerment

But those aren’t the only important benefits of the program. Green Empowerment’s goal of bringing efficient, resilient, low-cost and renewable power to communities means community members will have lights at night, which allows students to read and lets businesses stay open longer, reaping higher revenues. Electricity powered tools can help businesses boost income.

The renewable power and its smart systems can also bring jobs and business opportunities to communities.

What’s more, the environmental benefits are numerous. Green Empowerment supports regions that are home to the most biodiverse corners of the world, including ecosystems, rivers and wildlife. Renewable energy has a low impact on these important resources.

“It makes sense to support them with minimal impact on the ecosystem,” said Frydman.

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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

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