By Patrick T. Lee
Smart grids bring improved efficiency and reliability to the centralized energy delivery system that has been in existence for more than 100 years. The electric grid has relied on burning fossil fuels, but is now slowly shifting to renewable energy sources. In contrast, people living in remote areas such as the Himalayas are much smarter in their energy use even without electricity. Recently, volunteers from the IEEE Smart Village and Global Himalayan Expedition experienced firsthand what it takes to bring electricity and communication to a remote village, high in the clouds in Northern India.
What makes an electric grid truly “smart?” In the 21st century, trying to classify an electricity delivery system can be complicated, with many performance aspects to consider and many ways to interpret data. Instead, a simple definition might be best: a “smart” grid is a sustainable energy system that meets the needs of the people it serves. Recently, I was fortunate to travel to a remote village in the Himalayan Mountains, where I witnessed just how simple – and smart – an effective micro-grid system can be.
As a volunteer and steering committee member of IEEE Smart Village (ISV), I had the opportunity to travel last August with fellow IEEE members and volunteers to do my part and “walk our talk” by helping bring electricity, education and entrepreneurship to communities in the far reaches of the globe. Our destination was the Lingshed Monastery in northern India, perched at 13,000 feet in a remote region of the Himalayas. Reaching the village required a six-hour trek from the end of a road at a mountain pass – which followed a nine-hour car ride from the city of Leh. With the help of our local ISV project partner, Global Himalayan Expedition (GHE), we were able to acquire the necessary resources to electrify a monastery and school with 14 DC micro-grids as well as install satellite internet connectivity and an offline digital learning system.
Working in tandem, the ISV team joined Lingshed community members to support GHE in connecting over 400 LED lights and a satellite internet system – all powered by solar photovoltaic panels and batteries.
Just as in the developed world, electricity and communication are key enablers. With these basic tools, communities can enjoy a better quality of life and increased educational and entrepreneurial opportunities. Now, the people in this remote community are becoming truly empowered. Adequate lighting alone significantly improves the quality of life by allowing artisans to create and be more productive; monks have more quality time to read, study, and preserve the artifacts in the monastery; students have more time to study and play, and participate in fulfilling activities.
The internet and offline digital learning system opened up a new world for the middle school children. Finally, these kids also have the chance to Google, and utilize the World Wide Web to learn beyond what their old text books offer. Access to education and technology brings career opportunities and makes life easier in many ways. While we may be used to easily accessing a weather app on our phones, imagine the usefulness of being able to access real-time weather information and national news how farmers manage their crops and livelihood. It is not easy to travel outside of the village, but the internet brings the outside world to them.
Their environment will also benefit. Thanks to efficient LED lights, the community will use fewer candles and less carbon-emitting kerosene fuel. Air quality inside their homes will also improve. Most importantly, this carbon-free energy system is sustainable all year round – what better source of energy than the sun, especially when you live 13,000 feet closer to it than most other people!
Even before ISV helped bring electricity to Lingshed, the residents clearly valued their environment and used natural resources as wisely as possible. Many solar thermal cookers, shaped like satellite dishes, were in daily use; and a side of the innovation school lab was built like a sunroom in order to capture daylight and heat. We took the same care to protect their environment. Because each of the 24-volt stand-alone DC micro-grid powers about 30 LED lights requiring minimal low-voltage wiring, which preserves the pristine natural environment of the village and surroundings.
Community empowerment also means improving the local economy. Now able to better light their homestay services, villagers can now earn a higher income from hosting overnight travelers. This also gives rise to the Internet Café as a revenue source: visitors to the region are all too delighted to pay for the email access after the long and remote trek, where there certainly is no cell reception.
At the end of the day, the solar power we brought is only capable of lighting homes and small items like DC chargers and TVs, and was done with sensitivity to the environment of the needs of the local people. But this small system made a big impact and undoubtedly has improved lives. We can safely say this grid is truly “smart” after all.
Patrick Lee, IEEE Senior Member, is a vice president for Major Project Controls of Sempra Energy. In this current role, he supports the Sempra Energy family of companies in North America, Mexico, Chile and Peru, providing oversight and governance for large construction projects. Previously, Lee served as Vice President of the Sunrise Powerlink project for San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E), where Lee oversaw the $1.9 billion transmission project. Prior to that, Lee had other leadership roles including VP of energy supply for Sempra Generation and several director-level positions at SDG&E. Lee is a council member of the California Council on Science and Technology, serves as an advisory trustee for the California State Parks Foundation, a steering committee member for IEEE Smart Village, and serves on the Council of Advisors for UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering. Lee graduated cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering from San Diego State University and holds a master’s degree in electrical engineering from California State University, Sacramento. He also is a registered professional electrical engineer in California.