MIT students develop energy “mini-grid” software for remote & mountainous areas

Here's how they plan to bring sustainable and affordable electricity to all.
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When MIT electrical engineer Reja Amatya PhD ’12 arrived in Rwanda in 2015, she was whisked off to a village. She saw that diesel generators provided power to the local health center, bank, and shops, but like most of rural Rwanda, Karambi’s 200 homes did not have electricity. Amatya knew the hilly terrain would make it challenging to connect the village to high-voltage lines from the capital, Kigali, 50 kilometers away.

While many consider electricity a basic human right, there are places where people have never flipped a light switch. Among the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals is global access to affordable, reliable, and sustainable energy by 2030. Recently, the U.N. reported that progress in global electrification had slowed due to the challenge of reaching those hardest to reach.

Researchers from the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) and Comillas Pontifical University in Madrid created Waya Energy Inc., a Cambridge, Massachusetts-based startup commercializing MIT-developed planning and analysis software, to help governments determine the most cost-effective ways to provide electricity to all their citizens.

The researchers’ 2015 trip to Rwanda marked the beginning of four years of phone calls, Zoom meetings, and international travel to help the east African country — still reeling from the 1994 genocide that killed more than a million people — develop a national electrification strategy and extend its power infrastructure.

Amatya, Waya president and one of five Waya co-founders, knew that electrifying Karambi and the rest of the country would provide new opportunities for work, education, and connections — and the ability to charge cellphones, often an expensive and inconvenient undertaking.

To date, Waya — with funding from the Asian Development Bank, the African Development Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank for Latin America, and the World Bank — has helped governments develop electrification plans in 22 countries on almost every continent, including in refugee camps in sub-Saharan Africa’s Sahel and Chad regions, where violence has led to 3 million internally displaced people.

“With a modeling and visualization tool like ours, we are able to look at the entire spectrum of need and demand and say, ‘OK, what might be the most optimized solution?’” Amatya says.

More than 15 graduate students and researchers from MIT and Comillas contributed to the development of Waya’s software under the supervision of Robert Stoner, the interim director at MITEI, and Ignacio Pérez-Arriaga, a visiting professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management from Comillas. Pérez-Arriaga looks at how changing electricity use patterns have forced utilities worldwide to rethink antiquated business models.

The team’s Reference Electrification Model (REM) software pulls information from population density maps, satellite images, infrastructure data, and geospatial points of interest to determine where extending the grid will be most cost-effective and where other solutions would be more practical.

“I always say we are agnostic to the technology,” Amatya says. “Traditionally, the only way to provide long-term reliable access was through the grid, but that’s changing. In many developing countries, there are many more challenges for utilities to provide reliable service.”

Off-grid solutions

Waya co-founder Stoner, who is also the founding director of the MIT Tata Center for Technology and Design, recognized early on that connecting homes to existing infrastructure was not always economically feasible. What’s more, billions of people with grid connections had unreliable access due to uneven regulation and challenging terrain.

With Waya co-founders Andres Gonzalez-Garcia, a MITEI affiliate researcher, and Professor Fernando de Cuadra Garcia of Comillas, Pérez-Arriaga and Stoner led a team that developed a set of principles to guide universal regional electrification. Their approach — which they dubbed the Integrated Distribution Framework — incorporates elements of optimal planning as well as novel business models and regulation. Getting all three right is “necessary,” Stoner says, “if you want a viable long-term outcome.”

Amatya says, “Initially, we designed REM to understand what the level of demand is in these countries with very rural and poor populations, and what the system should look like to serve it. We took a lot of that input into developing the model.” In 2019, Waya was created to commercialize the software and add consulting to the package of services the team provides.

Now, in addition to advising governments and regulators on how to expand existing grids, Waya proposes options such as a mini-grid, powered by renewables like wind, hydropower, or solar, to serve single villages or large-scale mini-grid solutions for larger areas. In some cases, an even more localized, scalable solution is a mesh grid, which might consist of a single solar panel for a few houses that, over time, can be expanded and ultimately connected to the main grid.

The REM software has been used to design off-grid systems for remote and mountainous regions in Uganda, Peru, Nigeria, Cambodia, Indonesia, India, and elsewhere. When Tata Power, India’s largest integrated power company, saw how well mini-grids would serve parts of east India, the company created a mini-grid division called Tata Renewables.

Amatya notes that the REM software enables her to come up with an entire national electrification plan from her workspace in Cambridge. But site visits and on-the-ground partners are critical in helping the Waya team understand existing systems, engage with clients to assess demand, and identify stakeholders. In Haiti, an energy consultant reported that the existing grid had typically been operational only six out of every 24 hours. In Karambi, University of Rwanda students surveyed the village’s 200 families and helped lead a community-wide meeting.

Waya connects with on-the-ground experts and agencies “who can engage directly with the government and other stakeholders, because many times those are the doors that we knock on,” Amatya says. “Local energy ministries, utilities, and regulators have to be open to regulatory change. They have to be open to working with financial institutions and new technology.”

The goals of regulators, energy providers, funding agencies, and government officials must align in real time “to provide reliable access to energy for a billion people,” she says.

Moving past challenges

Growing up in Kathmandu, Amatya used to travel to remote villages with her father, an electrical engineer who designed cable systems for landlines for Nepal Telecom. She remembers being fascinated by the high-voltage lines crisscrossing Nepal on these trips. Now, she points out utility poles to her children and explains how the distribution lines carry power from local substations to customers.

After majoring in engineering science and physics at Smith College, Amatya completed her PhD in electrical engineering at MIT in 2012. Within two years, she was traveling to off-grid communities in India as a research scientist exploring potential technologies for providing access. There were unexpected challenges: At the time, digitized geospatial data didn’t exist for many regions. In India in 2013, the team used phones to take pictures of paper maps spread out on tables. Team members now scour digital data available through Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and other sources for useful geographical information. 

It’s one thing to create a plan, Amatya says, but how it gets utilized and implemented becomes a big question. With all the players involved — funding agencies, elected officials, utilities, private companies, and regulators within the countries themselves — it’s sometimes hard to know who’s responsible for next steps.

“Besides providing technical expertise, our team engages with governments to, let’s say, develop a financial plan or an implementation plan,” she says. Ideally, Waya hopes to stay involved with each project long enough to ensure that its proposal becomes the national electrification strategy of the country. That’s no small feat, given the multiple players, the opaque nature of government, and the need to enact a regulatory framework where none may have existed.

For Rwanda, Waya identified areas without service, estimated future demand, and proposed the most cost-effective ways to meet that demand with a mix of grid and off-grid solutions. Based on the electrification plan developed by the Waya team, officials have said they hope to have the entire country electrified by 2024.

In 2017, by the time the team submitted its master plan, which included an off-grid solution for Karambi, Amatya was surprised to learn that electrification in the village had already occurred — an example, she says, of the challenging nature of local planning.

Perhaps because of Waya’s focus and outreach efforts, Karambi had become a priority. However it happened, Amatya is happy that Karambi’s 200 families finally have access to electricity.

Republished with permission of MIT News. Read the original article.

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