By Russ Banham
In the enchanting desert outpost of Timimoun, Algeria, in North Africa, visitors can ride camels across undisturbed Saharan dunes that extend to the blue horizon. They can enjoy nighttime views of pristine skies and explore the local Berber culture with its characteristic red-hued buildings.
But when the town (population: 33,000) experiences a complete blackout, as it did in January 2019, a hotel stay becomes a less than pleasant experience. And the local economy comes to a halt.
Power interruptions and accompanying rolling blackouts and brownouts present significant challenges to governments in the developing world that are under increasing pressure to keep the lights on.
Of course, the energy problem goes beyond the consequences for tourism. Many developing nations have burgeoning middle classes that are demanding basics like steady electricity. Then there are the approximately 1 billion people on the planet who today have no access to electricity, but who will increasingly call for it. Most live in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia, according to the World Bank; roughly 80 percent live in rural areas like Timimoun.
Transmission of power from large-scale plants to far-flung locales like Timimoun is difficult and often impractical. The distances are long, the environments severe and the geography challenging, all of which lead to electrical losses and high costs to serve less populated areas. Utilities in poorer regions struggle, in particular, because they lack the economic or technical resources to support such a system.
As a result, isolated communities in the developing world are often dependent on smaller and less efficient power generation technologies to support their businesses and infrastructure. These regional systems are often unreliable and subject to frequent outages.
The outages, of course, are the most dramatic problem.
“The entire grid went down,” recalls Todd Emery, vice president of programs and operations at Connecticut-based PW Power Systems, part of Mitsubishi Heavy Industries Group, about Timimoun’s electrical failure. “When the grid goes black, everybody is impacted.”
A micro solution to a macro problem
The culprit was a short circuit on the transmission line spanning the 110 miles between Adrar and Timimoun. Fortunately, Timimoun was able to restore power quickly and avoid a prolonged blackout because of its adaptable power solution: two mobile gas turbine units. In recent years, PW Power Systems, which provides innovative solutions to the power generation industry, has supplied 54 mobile packages to Algeria. Each of these gas turbine-powered units can deliver 30 million watts, or 30 megawatts, of electricity.
Timimoun’s two units form a microgrid — a small-scale, localized source of electricity — that kept the lights on for the town’s residents. “The emergency power came on at a time when [the region] would not have had any power, period,” Emery says.
Though typically attached to a large, often national, grid, a local microgrid can function independently, disconnecting when necessary to autonomously operate in so-called island mode. When the grid shuts down, a microgrid can step in as a reliable backup. And in places where a grid is nonexistent, a microgrid can function as more than a backup. It may be the only dependable means of power.
“Microgrids are going to play a very important role in Africa,” says Harsh Shah, vice president of sales and business development at PW Power Systems.
Kick-starting a power solution
When the grid fails, a microgrid needs the ability to start itself and restore power in the line. This ability, commonly referred to as “black start,” is essential to re-energize the grid when no other generation is available, as was the case in Timimoun. The mobile gas turbine units, known as the FT8 MOBILEPAC, provided the boost.
Since 2010, PW Power Systems has provided 65 aero-derivative gas turbine packages to communities throughout Africa. Each self-contained package consists of two custom engineered trailers: a power trailer containing the gas turbine and electrical generator and a control trailer housing the electrical monitoring and control systems. The aero-derivative gas turbine technology powering these generators is highly efficient and smaller and lighter than other systems, making it ideal for mobile applications. The units also provide operational flexibility and the ability to reach full power quickly, and they are excellent at responding to sudden changes in system demand.
Because the units are mobile, everything that’s needed — the power package and its support equipment — can be relocated and connected to the microgrid for local distribution in as fast as 48 hours. For regions that are growing and evolving their system over time, adaptability is a must.
A recent upgrade to the gas turbine units enhances their stability. They switch between two modes, operating isochronously and in parallel, to manage the balance between power generation and demand and to stabilize the grid.
In the Adrar region south of Timimoun, four units working in this fashion have brought more stable electricity to some 500,000 people living in the Sahara Desert.
Narrowing a human divide
By distributing energy resources to small-scale microgrids that offer local power generation when needed, developing countries can overcome the obstacles of subpar regional grids — no small feat. As further advancements in sustainable energy develop, these breakthroughs could narrow the divide between “developed” and “developing” economies, especially those in Africa.
In a world in which nearly 1 billion people still lack access to electricity, reliable power generation can have a positive socio-economic impact. Energy, after all, provides the foundation that these communities need to support a new middle class and the next generation. It allows them to compete in an increasingly connected global economy, and so much more.
About The Author
Russ Banham is a Pulitzer-nominated financial journalist and best-selling author.