It is well known that remote communities face many challenges when dealing with meeting their energy demands. There are many examples around the world where remote communities have introduced renewable energy generation to help address some of these challenges and provide residents with a stable, clean long-term supply of electricity. In this week’s post we take a look at some of the primary challenges around energy generation in remote communities and some of the innovative solutions we have seen successfully implemented to meet the needs of the community.
Before we dive into community-specific examples below, it is important to reiterate that the conditions in these remote places are common worldwide, as are the challenges they bring. Three primary advantages of using renewable energy are the flexibility of its source (wind, solar, hydro, etc.) depending on location, the scalability to fit the local energy needs and that there is no fuel cost. More information on the wider benefits of community renewable energy can be seen here.
CHALLENGES OF BUILDING IN REMOTE COMMUNITIES
Depending on where the remote community is situated, different challenges may arise. There are places that have harsh and often extreme weather conditions. These can range from temperatures regularly dropping below -30°C, to near never-ending rainfalls and blizzards, to abnormal winds and very hot/dry climates. Furthermore, one of the more common features associated with remote areas is its inaccessibility, or unavailability of a local grid-connection. Whether it be locally constrained with high fault levels, or over-supply/demand on the grid network, these places regularly depend on expensive and inefficient means to meet their energy needs. Generators using fuels such as diesel and kerosene are often expensive to fuel, and their use can lead to negative impacts on the environment and health of the community. The far out-reached nature of some remote communities to larger settlements, lack of transportation and access roads are a significant and every-day challenge to the society. Moreover, many remote communities are in regions where the resource availability is less preferential than elsewhere, solar irradiance levels in the Arctic are an example of this. In these situations, communities have the opportunity to meet their energy demand through the use of hybrid systems made up of different energy sources which can help to manage variability and improve stability. A further challenge for remote communities is operational phase maintenance, without the ability to maintain generation facilities this can lead to reduced availability. Considering that operating conditions in these communities are regularly highly challenging this lack of maintenance can be detrimental to the projects, as they need proper attention stricter maintenance procedures to retain the reliability, thus not detrimentally impacting upon the power supply to the community.
An area very familiar with harsh weather conditions is the island of South Uist in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. Geographically, South Uist is situated in one of the most westerly points in Scotland and the island is fully exposed to weather systems rolling off the Atlantic Ocean, as a result the island can see extreme wind conditions and mean wind speeds of around 10.5m/s. In 2013 the island community completed construction of a 6.9MW wind farm to supply the energy needs of the homes and businesses on the island, the development is 100% owned and operated by the community. These operating conditions require specialist and robust wind turbines to withstand the harsh environment. In this instance Class I, Enercon E-70 2.3MW machines were chosen for the site and specialist foundation designs were procured and implemented to ensure that they would not experience fatigue failures during their operational life. Through careful strategic planning, the Green Cat Renewables (GCR) delivered a thorough wind resource assessment as well as successfully managing the construction phase of the now operational facility.
Lack of local grid infrastructure, or sufficient grid infrastructure regularly poses a significant problem for remote communities. Robust and interconnected grid networks can be expensive to build or upgrade and may not often be practical, alternative solutions are therefore needed to balance local demand. Most traditional grid networks are managed by passive means, this ‘Passive’ grid management assumes worst-case-scenario, that all demand is at it’s lowest, and that supply is at a peak. A situation that very rarely occurs. ‘Active Network Management’ is the means of pro-actively managing supply to the grid network in real time and matching it to the current demand on the network – in effect it allows grid operators to turn on, and off generating stations as required. Integrating ‘Active Management Network’ or smart grid technologies can not only free up generation capacity on a network but can also act to stabilise and balance the network to maintain optimum and safe operating conditions for customers. There are many examples where these systems have been operated effectively, particularly on remote and non-interconnected grids.
Transportation and access challenges are common amongst remote communities. Materials and equipment for renewable energy projects may be difficult to transport to site because of the absences of road and rail networks. A 5-turbine wind farm, Garth, recently became operational in March 2017, after the challenges from this remote location was solved. This site is found on the most northerly island of the Shetland isles, a secluded island north of Scotland’s mainland. The infrastructure on the island was mostly developed to support Oil and Gas exploration and operations in the North Sea, however to reach the development site location required to overcome logistical challenges. In order to deliver the wind turbines to site it was necessary to negotiate 2km of blanket bog peatland which was compounded by steep slopes. Peat conditions have a high percentage of organic material in the soil which leads to an unstable foundation to support heavy loads. GCR acting as designer and project manager, utilised a combination of conventional and floating roads to construct a new access for the Garth community project.
System design is an integral part to the development of any power generation facility, and it is a well-known fact that some renewable technologies are variable (wind and solar) and cannot guarantee a constant supply. Conventionally, isolated societies would be required to resort to using polluting diesel generators as backup if the primary electricity generation does not meet the demand of the communities. A hybrid system, making use of different sources of renewable energies can be combined to better meet the existing power demand of a community, or to fully utilise any existing grid connection. Systems such as these can also have storage elements, such as batteries added to them, meaning that they may be able to supply constant electricity to the grid network without the regular requirement of a back-up.
Hybrid systems combining technologies are an excellent example of a design that could provide a power supply to small or medium sized rural communities. Implementation of a battery storage device alongside this system could provide a constant and reliable energy supply, with the opportunity to replace the regular use of conventional fossil fuel based generators. As the costs of storage devices continues to decrease the use of these devices will become more common place, this trend will continue to improve the economic case for the use of hybrid renewable technologies in remote communities when compared with conventional generation methods.
During the operational phase, maintenance is a key consideration to minimise downtime and ensure safe continuous operation of the system. The remoteness of some community generation assets can encounter challenges relating to access to routine maintenance and increased cost of maintenance, ultimately impacting upon project performance. As a result, remote sites that have extreme weather conditions or lack of infrastructure, as discussed previously, must think of new and innovative measures of managing this. There are two critical factors to mitigating this risk: increased design tolerances (previously alluded to); and the increase in sensor use/feedback specifications and implementation of pro-active maintenance.
Maintenance of renewable energy projects requires specialist training, and (typically) a local team to undertake routine maintenance and inspections. This presents a good opportunity for training and local employment, as accessing very remote sites can be costly and time consuming for the turbine or other equipment manufacturers. Vastly improving the economic case for the maintenance to be undertaken by people whom are local to the development.
It goes without saying that project financing is a hurdle that all developments must overcome. Trying to implement a community generation project requiring to find solutions to the challenges mentioned above can be hindered without proper capital, grants or loans from other parties. Thankfully local and federal governments across the world are increasingly seeing the economic and environmental benefits associated with moving away from conventional diesel fuel generation seen in many remote communities. Resultant of this, there are many funding programs available to remote communities aimed at increasing energy independence through implementation of new and/or innovative solutions.
Each isolated region has their own set of obstacles. However, innovative approaches and forward thinking are essential in driving practical solutions to finding alternative methods for energy demands. All things considered, the deployment of renewable energy projects in remote communities has been a proven success story in many parts around the world. All it takes is an open mind to develop some momentum, and potentially change your rural communities’ energy source for the better.
As always, the GCR team is available for any questions/inquiries you may have. Please contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.