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Thanks to this solar panel, Sara Ruto no longer takes a three-hour taxi ride to a town with electricity to recharge her cellphone. More photos here.
KIPTUSURI, Kenya “” For Sara Ruto, the desperate yearning for electricity began last year with the purchase of her first cellphone, a lifeline for receiving small money transfers, contacting relatives in the city or checking chicken prices at the nearest market.
Charging the phone was no simple matter in this farming village far from Kenya’s electric grid.
Every week, Ms. Ruto walked two miles to hire a motorcycle taxi for the three-hour ride to Mogotio, the nearest town with electricity. There, she dropped off her cellphone at a store that recharges phones for 30 cents. Yet the service was in such demand that she had to leave it behind for three full days before returning.
That wearying routine ended in February when the family sold some animals to buy a small Chinese-made solar power system for about $80. Now balanced precariously atop their tin roof, a lone solar panel provides enough electricity to charge the phone and run four bright overhead lights with switches.
“My main motivation was the phone, but this has changed so many other things,” Ms. Ruto said on a recent evening as she relaxed on a bench in the mud-walled shack she shares with her husband and six children.
As small-scale renewable energy becomes cheaper, more reliable and more efficient, it is providing the first drops of modern power to people who live far from slow-growing electricity grids and fuel pipelines in developing countries. Although dwarfed by the big renewable energy projects that many industrialized countries are embracing to rein in greenhouse gas emissions, these tiny systems are playing an epic, transformative role.
Since Ms. Ruto hooked up the system, her teenagers’ grades have improved because they have light for studying. The toddlers no longer risk burns from the smoky kerosene lamp. And each month, she saves $15 in kerosene and battery costs “” and the $20 she used to spend on travel.
In fact, neighbors now pay her 20 cents to charge their phones, although that business may soon evaporate: 63 families in Kiptusuri have recently installed their own solar power systems.
“You leapfrog over the need for fixed lines,” said Adam Kendall, head of the sub-Saharan Africa power practice for McKinsey & Company, the global consulting firm. “Renewable energy becomes more and more important in less and less developed markets.”
The United Nations estimates that 1.5 billion people across the globe still live without electricity, including 85 percent of Kenyans, and that three billion still cook and heat with primitive fuels like wood or charcoal.
There is no reliable data on the spread of off-grid renewable energy on a small scale, in part because the projects are often installed by individuals or tiny nongovernmental organizations.
But Dana Younger, senior renewable energy adviser at the International Finance Corporation, the World Bank Group’s private lending arm, said there was no question that the trend was accelerating. “It’s a phenomenon that’s sweeping the world; a huge number of these systems are being installed,” Mr. Younger said.
With the advent of cheap solar panels and high-efficiency LED lights, which can light a room with just 4 watts of power instead of 60, these small solar systems now deliver useful electricity at a price that even the poor can afford, he noted. “You’re seeing herders in Inner Mongolia with solar cells on top of their yurts,” Mr. Younger said.
In Africa, nascent markets for the systems have sprung up in Ethiopia, Uganda, Malawi and Ghana as well as in Kenya, said Francis Hillman, an energy entrepreneur who recently shifted his Eritrea-based business, Phaesun Asmara, from large solar projects financed by nongovernmental organizations to a greater emphasis on tiny rooftop systems.
In addition to these small solar projects, renewable energy technologies designed for the poor include simple subterranean biogas chambers that make fuel and electricity from the manure of a few cows, and “mini” hydroelectric dams that can harness the power of a local river for an entire village.
A just-announced decision by Federal regulators – that all parties who benefit from new transmission in the Midwest must share in the cost of building it – may go a long way toward determining the future of renewables.
The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) decision defines MultiValue Projects (MVPs) as wires having a regional impact and wide-ranging public benefits. It approves the Midwest Independent System Operator (MISO) proposal that the cost of building or upgrading MVPs be distributed among all beneficiaries. FERC’s intent is to make more affordable the development of new regional transmission.
The decision is the culmination of a push over much of the last decade by renewables advocates in the Midwest to get utilities and transmission system planners and operators to think more about wind power but is expected to apply where new wires are built to accommodate other renewable energy resources.
“”¦The three buzz words are planning, paying and permitting,” explained Beth Soholt, Executive Director of the Midwest activist group Wind on the Wires. Over the last decade, Midwest renewables advocates did a lot of work on transmission planning for the integration of variable renewables because “the system operators and the transmission planners have had to do a lot of learning about how you do that.”
As more states instituted Renewable Electricity Standards (RESs), transmission professionals realized the renewables advocates were pushing them where they needed to go. “In the Midwest,” Soholt said, “we have about 10,000 megawatts of wind in the ground and spinning. To meet our renewable requirements through 2025, we need an additional 25-to-30,000 megawatts.” And, she added, “we don’t know what’s going to happen with load growth.”
In the late 1990s, California developers had pioneered the idea of including the full array of stakeholders in planning to build wires for its wind-rich regions. Texas formalized the method by establishing stakeholder-approved Competitive Renewable Energy Zones (CREZs) to which developer-enabling lines would be built. Other transmission systems, including the MISO, followed.
With such planning, “we had finally gotten far enough,” Soholt said, and “the next hurdle was: How do you pay for this new transmission?”
In the wind-rich Midwest, often called “the Saudi Arabia of wind,” building new transmission is especially complicated because the MISO territory is spread from eastern Montana to northern Ohio, as well as north to Saskatchewan and south to Missouri and Kentucky.
What all proposed transmission to facilitate renewable development shared, Soholt explained, was incorporated into the idea of a regional, 345-kilovolt (or larger) MVP. It would enable public policy objectives, serve local load growth, reliably keep the lights on, and assure the best-priced electricity to ratepayers by reducing transmission congestion.
The MISO submitted to FERC the idea of establishing 100% cost sharing among all stakeholders for such MVPs. “FERC largely found that what MISO had proposed was just and reasonable,” Soholt said. “The job creation, the economic development, the wind farms in lots of different locations and all the associated additional benefits,” Soholt said, flow to electricity consumers in states throughout the region.
“The reason this is so precedential,” Soholt said, is that “until we had an idea of how FERC was going the treat the cost allocation,” none of the transmission planned over the last five years could move forward. “There was too much money at stake that utilities didn’t know how would be allocated or recovered.” But, with this decision, “now we can move into implementation.”
Seventeen projects are listed in the FERC filing. “All of those lines are going to get more scrutiny now,” Soholt said. “What you’ll see next is utilities or other transmission developers stepping up to make the business case.”
Among the projects most likely to be quickly affected, Soholt said, are (1) the Michigan thumb project, (2) the Brookings line to deliver power from South Dakota to Minneapolis-St. Paul, and (3) the La Cross to Madison line enhancing Wisconsin’s ability to access Dakota and Iowa wind.