Navigant Research Blog

Distributed Generation in the Developing World

Anissa Dehamna — December 14, 2010

Fuel cells are part of a much larger sustainable energy discussion. One of my passions is sustainable development, particularly in low and middle-income countries. The United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) are a useful framework for discussing international development. The MDGs are a set of eight goals with a mission to eradicate extreme poverty and hunger, achieve universal primary education, empower women, reduce child mortality, improve maternal health, dramatically reduce infectious disease (HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis), ensure environmental sustainability, and develop a global partnership for development.

In a past life, I analyzed how fuel cell technology could be used to fulfill international development objectives and specifically, help fulfill the Millennium Development Goals. This week I would like to look at one of these applications and to summarize the benefits and drawbacks of using fuel cells in distributed generation, specifically in developing countries.

Distributed generation, or district power, is decentralized power generation. Traditionally, a large amount of electricity is generated at a central point and is then distributed using a costly grid network. Three problems arise from employing the traditional power generation model. The first and most compelling issue for many decision-makers is the high cost of grid infrastructure. The second is that losses occur along power lines; this is especially relevant when electricity is generated hundreds of miles from its point of use as is often the case with wind and solar. The third is that grid infrastructure blemishes and fragments landscapes, affecting people and biodiversity.

By adopting distributed generation as an energy model, developing countries can minimize grid infrastructure costs while profiting from some of the key benefits (in line with the MDGs) of electrification:

• Achieve universal primary education

• Promote gender equality and empower women

• Reduce child mortality

• Improve maternal health

• Combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases

• Ensure environmental sustainability

• Develop a global partnership for development

There are many technologies that can be used in distributed generation. For fuel cell technology, specifically, the advantages of using large stationary fuel cells in distributed generation schemes include: fuel flexibility, a way to use captured renewable energy (such as wind or solar), efficiency gains that can contribute to climate change reduction targets and modularity.

Schools, hospitals, clinics and communities can benefit from clean, quiet, grid-independent energy-generation. Fuel cells are modular, and so can be scaled up or down depending on the needs of the end-user. Fuel cell installations can grow over time with a community or project. They can be coupled with solar and wind to capture and store renewable energy as hydrogen, and the diversity of fuel cell types and fuels mean that in many cases, fuel cells can be tailored to fit the local energy situation. As an example, in an agricultural region, a fuel cell can be paired with a solar or wind-powered electrolyzer or an anaerobic digester. If the electrolyzer is used, then the fuel cell can accept the hydrogen to generate heat and electricity and any fuel cell vehicles (cars, tractors) can also be fueled using hydrogen. Using the anaerobic digester would allow farmers to create generate methane and thereby energy from agricultural waste.

The challenges for using fuel cell technology in distributed generation in developing countries hinge on reliability and affordability. Fuel cells deployed to rugged, rural environments must meet strict testing and robustness targets before deployment. Installations must be regularly monitored and communities must also have access to technicians that can repair installations when necessary. This is not always possible in remote areas. Fuel cells are also typically more expensive per kilowatt hour than other technologies.

On the whole, distributed generation is a good solution for developing countries looking to electrify without investing in grid infrastructure. Fuel cell technology could be useful in this context, but not without taking a good look at the benefits and drawbacks, which are many.

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