Our Micro-Grid Safari

By Deepa Shinde Lounsbury

Even though they have been around for decades, microgrids have become a buzz word among energy folks lately, especially in the rural electrification world.  “Micro-grids” can be described as tiny versions of our big and mighty US electricity grid.   The houses in a village are all connected through a small distribution system to some generation source (either renewable energy or diesel – you can probably guess the kinds ERGies prefer) and viola: electrification!  This means lights for kids to read, street lights to avoid tigers and snakes at night (I’m not even joking about this), refrigerators for vaccinations, opportunities for micro-enterprises, and all sorts of other good stuff.
Juan Pablo Carvallo (ERGie, 2nd year), Dan Schnitzer (PhD student at Carnegie Mellon and founder of Earthspark in Haiti) and Deepa Shinde Lounsbury (ERGie, 2nd year) decided to find out what this microgrid rage was all about with our own eyes (and some human-subjects-review-board-approved interviews).  We hoped to find out who was doing what, how they were doing it, and what was “working”.  We picked India and Borneo because there were tons of microgrids in India with lots of innovative approaches and Borneo, because, well, we wondered if we might see an orangutan while we were at it.

Getting to all those places on the above map in three weeks turned out to be more grueling than I expected, but we were rewarded for our efforts and rigorous interviews with a perspective on microgrids and rural electrification that I don’t think we could have gotten from any amount of reading. 

Sundarbans, West Bengal, India   
The government of India is aggressively expanding the central grid and intends for every village in India to be connected.  We visited the Sundarbans, an archipelago with mangroves forests and tigers, and saw the electricity distribution system on the verge of being extended out from the mainland to the Sundarbans as we passed by on a ferry
We visited a PV microgrid  built by the West Bengal Renewable Energy Development Agency on one of the islands that had been operating since 2001.  We also saw lots of cows and lush scenery!
Patna, Bihar, India
Father Paul showed us around the solar research center he manages (left).  Bihar’s electricity grid is notorious for its unreliability and Father Paul leads research efforts on appropriate solar technologies associated with water heating, sterilizing medical equipment, solar refrigerators, etc.
We stayed at the dorms on-site for two nights and were amazed by their hospitality. The other two nights in Bihar were spent on 14-hour bus rides to and from Araria, where we visited microgrids built by Desi Power.
With my own eyes, I got to see how rice husk (above), an agricultural waste, can light up a village using a biomass gasifier built by Husk Power Systems (below).

Araria, Bihar, India   
Microgrid operators can be female too! She operated a biomass gasifier microgrid built by Desi Power. Desi is committed to gender equality and supports a number of initiatives to empower women in Bihar, along with its microgrid work.

Sabah, Malaysia
The roads through the rainforest in Borneo were absolutely insane.

We stayed in two different villages with micro hydro-powered microgrids installed with the help of NGOs Tonibung and Green Empowerment.

We swam in a beautiful river and crossed some picturesque bridges through the jungle like this one.

While doing an intense series of operator interviews, we ate rambutan and other tropical fruits. 
  We didn’t see any orangutans, but I did get to meet lots of village puppies who reminded me of own my little Thai mutt at home in Oakland.

If you want to know everything about our micro-grid safari, you will just have to read my master’s project, but for now, those are a few highlights of the trip (with props to Dan for his awesome photos).


  1. Great pictures! Where is the main ERG website? I was surprised I could not find you on the list of HOMER users. Are you aware of the HOMER microgrid optimization software? http://homerenergy.com

  2. Hi Marilyn, This is the main ERG website: http://erg.berkeley.edu/
    It is undergoing a renovation at the moment, so look out for the new one in the next couple of months. Cheers, Tanya


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