10 Microgrids that Really Make a Difference

May 8, 2023
What does a Microgrid Knowledge Greater Good Award winner look like? Here are profiles of the 10 microgrids that won in 2020, 2021 and 2022.

Each year as part of its annual conference, Microgrid Knowledge presents greater good awards to microgrids that serve a clear societal need and improve the human condition.

We will present this year’s awards next week at Microgrid 2023, which will be held May 16-17 in Anaheim, California. (See a list of the finalists.)

What does a greater good award winner look like? Here are profiles of the 10 microgrids that won in 2020, 2021 and 2022. They were chosen by an independent panel of journalists, clean energy advocates, educators and disaster relief experts. 

We recognize microgrids in three categories: Top Award/Highest Recognition, Award for a Grid-Connected Microgrid and Award for a Remote Microgrid. In 2022, Microgrid Knowledge added an award for a microgrid within the host state of the annual Microgrid Knowledge conference.

2020

Engaging changemakers (Top award)

Global Himalayan Expedition (GHE) won the top prize in 2020 for a solar microgrid in Batambis, a remote Himalayan village almost 14,000 feet above sea level with no roads or electric grid and cut off from the world by snowfall for six months of the year.

“Wherever the road ends, that’s where GHE begins working,” said Paras Loomba, GHE founder. “People from all over the globe come and join me to electrify the villages.”

At the time the prize was announced, GHE had taken 1,300 travelers — who Loomba calls “changemakers” — from 65 countries on its expeditions to help electrify the sites.

Once they are electrified, the villages — set in some of the most picturesque places on Earth — create homestay businesses so that travelers can visit and the villagers can earn revenue to help them operate and maintain their microgrid.

“For the Highest Recognition or Grand Prize — it has to be for the project completed at highest elevation! The Global Himalayan Expedition. Also a lovely example of microgrids spawning entrepreneurship and community stability,” said Julie Jones,  operations manager at Generation 180, one of the seven judges that evaluated the entries. 

Microgrid for affordable housing  (Grid-connected)

Maycroft Apartments Microgrid in Washington D.C., became the first affordable housing development in the District of Columbia to fully power a resiliency center through solar photovoltaics paired with a battery storage system. 

The microgrid provides backup power to critical loads for up to three days, allowing for the  refrigeration of food and medication, operation of exhaust and floor fans, lighting, outlets for charging cell phones and medical equipment, a microwave for food preparation and a television. Solar plus storage also powers lighting for stairwells and hallways throughout the complex.

The Maycroft project is part of Solar for All, a district program that allows residents to reap financial benefits from solar. Using an innovative model to pass community solar savings directly to low-income households, the program allows participants to save an average $40 per household every month on utility bills.

The apartments were developed by Jubilee Housing. The Pepco Foundation provided a grant. New Partners, Amidus and Pepco, the local utility, designed the solar plus storage system with technical assistance funding support from Clean Energy Group’s Resilient Power Project. 

The system includes 16 Simpliphi PHI 3.5 lithium ferro phosphate batteries, totaling 46 kW/56 kWh, connected to a 62.4-kW rooftop solar array. The microgrid can automatically disconnect from the grid during a utility outage and enable power from the solar panels and batteries to continue providing resilient and reliable energy to critical loads. 

The batteries and related equipment cost $90,000 and the installation cost $40,000. Development of the community rooftop solar array was already underway and cost $197,000. The Pepco Foundation provided $65,000 in funding to support the battery installation.

Clean water via a microgrid (Remote)

The Kigbe Solar Minigrid in Nigeria helps about 2,000 people living in Kigbe, an off-grid rural community in Nigeria, secure free, clean, pipe-borne water.

The initiative was borne out of a cholera outbreak (caused by contaminated water) within the community a few years before the microgrid was constructed. The microgrid now powers a borehole that the entire community relies on for clean water.

The microgrid has also helped boost Kigbe’s economy. Over the last two years, the community has witnessed the creation of over eight businesses, among them small-scale grocery stores, hair salons and soccer-viewing centers.

The microgrid has also promoted gender equity by providing seed capital to the first female entrepreneur in the community. The seed capital helped her establish a grocery store and the acquisition of a refrigerator to sell cold drinks during summer.

As part of the project, Havenhill  Synergy provided microloans to customers for the purchase of appliances. The community has witnessed a slight growth in population as residents of neighboring rural communities have migrated to enjoy the microgrid benefits.

“This project exemplifies the many things a microgrid can bring to a community beyond providing access to electricity: jobs, female empowerment, education, improved quality of life and clean water,” said Ringness of SmartBlock, one of the judges.

Those involved in bringing the project to fruition were Havenhill Synergy, the United States African Development Foundation, Power Africa Initiative, Diamond Development Initiative, African Development Bank Mini-Grid HelpDesk and Inensus Gmbh.

2021

Assisting South Sudanese refugees (Top award)

The top prize went to a containerized microgrid at the Ayillo II Refugee Settlement, which serves South Sudanese refugees residing in Northern Uganda. 

Called the ATLAS Containerized Microgrid, the system powers a 40-foot container that was converted by an Arizona State University (ASU) team into a medical clinic that provides primary care to over 200 refugees per day. 

Before the microgrid was installed, medical practitioners struggled with unreliable power and difficult access to clean water. 

The clinic uses 22 linear feet of the 40-foot container, with the remaining 18 feet used for the microgrid and water purification systems. The 10-kW solar microgrid also provides power for medical staff housing and is capable of offering additional power for expanded water supply and area lighting. 

The containerized microgrid is replicable and can be used for other areas that require “last mile” distribution to remote off-grid locations, according to ASU Professor Nathan Johnson, who led development of the system as part of a $2 million, four-part research project funded by the US Office of Naval Research’s Defense University Research-to-Adoption Program.

ASU worked on the Ayillo project in partnership with Medical Teams International, which operates clinics in refugee settlements in many parts of the world. Other partners are Pipeline Worldwide, SolarNow Uganda, Industrial Water Innovations, Corporate Interior Systems, Wholesale Floors, Gensler, Tarkett and the US Office of Naval Research.

Patrice Calise, one of the Microgrid Greater Good Award judges and associate copy editor at S&P Global Market Intelligence, described the microgrid as “a true multitasker that addresses multiple challenges.”

“The model of containerized, relatively easily deployed medical units with a self-sustaining microgrid does so much heavy lifting in communities that have many gaps to fill,” she said.

Microgrid for Kenya birthing clinic (Remote)

A microgrid that brought reliable electricity for the first time to a women’s clinic in Kenya won the award for a microgrid at a remote location. 

Located at the Matongo Women’s Clinic, the 8.7-kW solar and storage microgrid led to a dramatic increase in births at the clinic. Before it was installed, women were hesitant to make the journey to the clinic because of its frequent power outages, said Samantha Childress, a solutions architect manager at Schneider Electric and a member of the board of directors for United Solar Initiative. Both organizations worked on the project, along with Kenyan solar installer Powerpoint and NGO funding partner Curamericas.

The microgrid provides backup power to critical loads at the birthing center, which had incurred weekly power outages. Since the microgrid went on online in August 2020, the birthing clinic has seen a significant rise in the number of births. The facility is also saving money on energy, which allows for the purchase of additional medical supplies.

Mary Powers of Engineering News-Record, a judge, said she chose the Matongo Women’s Clinic because “Kenya’s maternal death rates and stillbirth rates are a major public health concern. Additional births in better conditions improve both maternal survival and live births.”

Melissa Marshall of the Partnership for Inclusive Disaster Strategies, another judge, said she was impressed by the team’s ability to continue to develop the project remotely during the pandemic. “Remote development keeps the carbon footprint lower, and it preserves staff and other resources.”

Protecting the food supply from power outage (Grid-connected)

South Australia went through complete statewide extended blackouts in 2016 because of grid failure. When the South Australian Produce Market lost power, the impact was felt widely — it is the main source of fresh fruit and vegetables for Adelaide, South Australia’s capital and the fifth largest city on the continent.

On top of that, farmer tenants were already paying the highest electricity rates in the country in the embedded network.

The blackout and high energy prices prompted the South Australian Produce Market to take control of its energy supply by installing a 7.5-MW microgrid that uses solar, battery storage and a fuel-efficient generator as the last resort.

The microgrid has reduced energy costs for farmers and given them confidence that they will not lose product because of power outages. 

The project features AZZO’s automated spot market bidding system that allows the produce market to gain revenue by buying and selling energy to the grid based on real-time pricing in the National Electricity Market.

“The South Australian Market project won my vote because of the effort made to optimize the grid-connected nature of the project,” said NorthBridge’s Peter Kelly-Detwiler, one of the judges. “The intelligence in the system that essentially forecast and arbitraged prices in the Australian energy market with those in the microgrid offers an example of the power of these systems to lower everybody’s prices by being price-elastic. Customers in the market saved 25%, while enjoying a level of reliability they could not previously count on. I look forward to the day when these types of projects no longer require government subsidies; as costs of the constituent elements continue to fall, and our body of expertise grows, I suspect that day is not far away.”

2022

Safety from snakes (Top award)

SunMoksha received the top award for its work on the Kudagaon Village Microgrid in Odisha, India. 

The 300 residents of Kudagaon live in isolation, especially during monsoon season when their river island is hard to access. In March 2019 sustainable technology developer SunMoksha brought a nanogrid to the island.

The application described the island’s transformation this way:

Significant changes have been observed in the community after the implementation. Many parents have set evening studying hours for their children, and are hopeful to have a tuition center in the village so that their children get additional guidance. A village mother said that she wanted her daughter to become a teacher, and now is certain that her dream will come true! Home lighting and street lights provide safety from the snakes in and out of the house. Streetlights have enabled socializing and entertainment in the evening – men play cards, women visit neighbors, relatives visit and stay longer as there is light, fans and coolers, and relish quality family time. Women are the happiest lot as they can now complete chores at their pace and don’t have to depend on the sunlight.

Local businesses have started to emerge. Two farmers have invested some of their savings to run a rice and flour mill. Grocery stores have reported that their business runs till late evening, fetching additional income. Farmers want to switch from diesel to electric pumps for irrigation and practice agriculture all year round. And to top it up, the villagers who have seen grid electricity off the island, prefer [the] microgrid over the grid systems, for its quality, consistency and dependability.

“In our projects, we’ve realized that the streetlights are a game changer because it enables social interaction. People come out to play in the night, they can have a social life and feel safe,” said Ashok Das, founder and CEO of SunMoksha Power.

Socioeconomic development is also key for each of SunMoksha’s microgrid projects. “It cannot just be light” or power to improve education, but it has to empower the community’s move up the economic value chain, Das said.

The challenges of building a microgrid at 14,200 feet (Remote)

Global Himalayan Expedition received the Greater Good Award for a Remote Microgrid for the Sato Medical Health Center in Ladakh, India. The microgrid serves seven communities in the Himalayas and made a 2021 COVID-19 vaccination program possible. 

Working at an elevation of 14,200 feet, the team overcame challenges unique to the high altitude environment.

“GHE works with local technicians to train, install, own and operate the microgrid systems,” said Doug Mackenzie, an expedition team member. Assistance from GHE is available, but it can take several days for that support to arrive. This is why “the daily, weekly and monthly maintenance is all done by the local villagers,” Mackenzie said.

This was the second Greater Good Award won by GHE. The India-based business also won a top award in 2020.

Advanced controller for higher ed (Grid-connected)

The Santa Rosa Junior College Microgrid provides resilience not only to the 100-acre campus but also to the region, which is prone to wildfires and public safety power shutoffs. PXiSE supplied the microgrid controller for the project.

“What we were able to do is make sure that when the grid is not connected to this microgrid that we are well suited to supply and support some of the campus load and even actually help with some of the demand as well,” said Joe Sullivan, head of sales for PXiSE. “The way you control the microgrid based on the objectives and the project goals is very important as to how you select a controls provider and a controls solution.”

Those credited for creation of the microgrid are Worley, Pacific Gas and Electric, PXiSE, Center for Sustainable Energy, California Energy Commission and Go Electric. 

Pennsylvania microgrid accentuates energy efficiency (Host state award)

The Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center Microgrid was recognized with the Local Microgrid Greater Good Award. In the video, Katherine Hammack, director of special projects for Green Business Certification and Kevin Kanoff, campus energy engineer for the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, Penn State College of Medicine, present the details of the project to conference attendees. They explain how the microgrid, which includes combined heat and power and energy storage, has significantly improved the medical center’s fuel use efficiency.

Kanoff notes that “efficiency is really important. It’s the building block to the next level.” He says that in 2011 when they first launched phase 1, their total energy spend was $14 million. In 2022, their energy spend is projected to be just $6.1 million.

“When you do energy efficiency, you can have a tremendous carbon reduction, but you’re doing it at a financial benefit,” Kanoff said.

Meet the winners of the 2023 Microgrid Knowledge Greater Good Awards at Microgrid 2023 May 16-17 in Anaheim, California.

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