Smart Off-Grid Shines a Way Forward for Low-Cost, Reliable, Clean Energy

By Miriam Tuerk, Co-Founder and CEO of Clear Blue Technologies

Energy disparities around the world are stark: while developed countries, such as the U.S. and the U.K., have reliable access to power, populations in emerging and frontier markets are being left behind. Today, many communities in developing countries live without access to electricity or in places where it is unreliable and expensive. Where electricity is available, it is often fueled by diesel generators, which contribute towards air pollution. The lack of clean, affordable and reliable power has a profound effect on the health, economy and lives of those living in poorer countries around the world. “Smart Off-Grid” technology is helping to change that narrative by delivering clean, reliable, low-cost solar power to remote and undeveloped communities worldwide.

Powering communities in emerging and frontier markets

Access to reliable, clean, low-cost power is a problem for many communities, particularly in emerging and frontier markets. Oxford Energy estimates that 1.3 billion people do not have access to electricity and approximately 3 billion people cook and heat their homes using open fires like stove burning biomass and coal. This contributes to over 4 million people who die prematurely each year from illnesses caused by air pollution in their own homes. It also stifles economic growth in the community, as the lack of outdoor lighting limits economic activity to daylight hours, lack of internet access limits business and educational opportunities, and lack of power impacts the availability of critical infrastructure.

There is a silver lining. Many of the regions with these greatest challenges, such as parts of Africa or the Middle East, have lots of sunshine year-round that could be used to generate reliable energy. So why hasn’t solar energy compensated for the lack of electric power?

One of the answers to this question is cost. Building out infrastructure to generate solar power in remote communities requires capital. The good news is that there are a number of trends that are now making solar energy economically viable. This includes a dramatic drop in the cost of solar panels over the past decade, as well as funding from investors in Europe and the U.S, and a pay-as-you-go payment model similar to how people often pay for mobile phones in these regions.

Beyond the issue of cost, reliability of solar technology and systems has also been a critical issue. Consider a solar-powered streetlight. Unlike an electric grid-connected streetlight that consists of a pole, some cabling, and a light, a solar-powered streetlight is a micro-energy grid. It requires a pole and light, but also a solar panel, wiring, battery, and charge controller to manage the power going into and out of the battery. It typically also requires a trained professional to install, as well as on-site maintenance. All of these factors have contributed to making off-grid systems unreliable and expensive to install and maintain, as a trained person has to go out into the field any time there is an issue or system failure. With no data to provide a clue as to the cause of a failure, parts may be replaced unnecessarily or not at all.

Enter Smart Off-Grid

Smart grid is a powerful force in the world of energy generation, driving greater efficiencies and a host of new applications. Smart Off-Grid technology is now doing the same for systems powered by solar and wind, while also enabling them to be deployed anywhere, regardless of the availability of grid power.

Smart Off-Grid provides a way for off-grid systems to be monitored, managed and controlled remotely via the cloud, overcoming the barriers of cost and reliability that have previously hindered successful widespread adoption. With Smart Off-Grid each pole has built-in, low-cost communications, over which it automatically sends critical data to a central management service where the systems can be managed, controlled, and even proactively serviced online. This is the key to validating that systems are properly installed and commissioned, that they are properly and cost-effectively maintained over time, and that they deliver the service expected despite adverse weather or environmental conditions.

Beyond Lighting

Just a few decades ago, when all telephones were hard-wired, it would have been hard to imagine the impact and the opportunities arising from the Internet, wireless communications, and smartphones. Now, there is a new and equally important revolution coming, as wired, grid power gives way to clean, wireless energy in many parts of the world. Beyond lighting, off-grid power is now becoming a critical component of providing wireless telecom service to rural communities around the world. Driven by start-up companies and venture capital, numerous companies have emerged that are building and installing solar-powered wireless access devices. These systems are cost-effective enough to be installed in smaller communities, where local utilities wouldn’t otherwise have found it economically feasible to operate.

An example of this is the Telecom Infra Project (TIP), founded in 2016 by Facebook, Intel, Nokia, SK Telecom, and Deutsche Telekom to facilitate collaboration on new technologies, examine new business approaches and spur new investments into the telecom space. TIP’s OpenCellular project is focused on improving connectivity in remote areas and is helping to bring the Internet to a billion people worldwide. Using solar energy to power these devices is what enables them to be installed in these areas, while Smart Off-Grid will ensure high reliability and low-cost maintenance.

 Leading the Smart Off-Grid revolution

Clear Blue Technologies, founded on a vision of delivering clean, managed, “wireless power”, has pioneered the development and deployment of Smart Off-Grid technology. Our technology combines solar, wind and solar-hybrid energy with advanced communications and cloud software to power highly reliable off-grid lighting, telecom, security, mobile, and Internet of Things systems. Today we have over 2,500 systems under management in 33 countries worldwide. We know firsthand the value it delivers to communities and companies – unmatched reliability and performance, while lowering the cost to install and maintain off-grid systems by up to 80 percent.

Smart Off-Grid is particularly important in emerging and frontier markets, such as countries in sub-Saharan Africa, where grid infrastructure is lacking or has struggled to keep pace with demand as economies have grown. As the cost of solar power continues to drop and system reliability increases through the growth of Smart Off-Grid technology, communities around the world will have greater access to reliable, low-cost, clean sources of power. This is critical to the health and economic growth of these communities, who are being left behind in the digital technology age.

We believe that the implementation of Smart Off-Grid technology is a sea change for off-grid renewable power; its high reliability, long-term performance, and low maintenance costs will be the future for managing power in across the world.