Could an energy microgrid system being developed for the U.S. Army hold the key to achieving universal energy access as a strategy in the war on poverty in Africa? This was the question that came to mind upon reading
...[I]t will use renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind power. The goal is to reach a 99.999% availability level for buildings without backup (5 minutes out/year) at the lowest possible cost. Once this concept is operational at an undisclosed military base the researchers think the technology could be deployed for ordinary people.
Those who have been following the sustainable energy discourse will immediately recognize that the concept being tested by SNL and the army is at least 30 years old. Back in 1976, Amory Lovins had worked out the essentials in a Foreign Affairs article titled "Soft Energy Paths." In contrast to the conventional "hard energy path" illustrated in Figure 1, Lovins and other advocates adopted a different approach based on a redefinition of the energy problem, whereby:
The relevant question is not simply where to get more energy, of any kind, from any source, at any price. Rather, it is a series of inter-linked questions. What do we want the energy for? What are the end uses we are trying to provide, such as comfort and light and torque? And how much energy, of what kind, at what scale, from what source, will meet each of those end use needs in the cheapest way?
Citing Edwin Land, the father of Polaroid photography, Lovins attributes inventions such as the Soft Energy Path concept to a “sudden cessation of stupidity” and an ability to “stop having old ideas.” As illustrated in Figure 2, a Soft Energy Path:
... involves efficient use of energy, diversity of energy production methods (matched in scale and quality to end uses), and special reliance on..."soft technologies" (a.k.a., alternative technology) such as solar energy, wind energy, biofuels, geothermal energy, etc.
During the intervening 30 years, a combination of inadequate political support and funding prevented the development and large scale deployment of the needed "distributed generation" technologies and policies in the U.S. Only the recently felt need to realize the twin-goals of "increased energy security and decreased dependence on fossil fuels" in an increasingly dangerous world has pushed the U.S. Army to pursue a soft energy path. As explained by David Menicucci, Roch Ducey, and Paul Volkman, authors of the energy surety model:
Both goals suggest that the Army consider diversifying its current use of the local electric utility for primary power and engine-driven generators for emergency back-up power. They also call for including renewable energy systems such as wind, solar, geothermal, and biomass, and other advanced distributed generation (DG) technologies such as fuel cells and microturbines. Increased energy reliability and security and, therefore, enhanced mission readiness, can be achieved by networking these power systems together in an “intelligent” microgrid. This concept is built on the philosophy that, “the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
There is at least one reason why this work should be of interest to energy and development decision-makers in Africa: some of the technologies being developed can help expand assess to cleaner energy services while achieving the increasingly important goals of "increased energy security and decreased dependence on fossil fuels." The on-going war against poverty, disease and ignorance in Africa cannot be won without realigning the evolutionary trajectory of energy systems across the continent towards a soft energy path. The U.S. Army's effort to create a replicable energy surety model might yield valuable technologies that can help win this war in Africa. But ultimate victory will require institutional models that are antithetical t0 the command and control structures characteristic of military institutions and traditional energy utilities. As Carl J. Weinberg, a long-time advocate of distributed energy systems put it in 1998:
The provision of energy services to the rural populations of the world, in a sustainable manner, will depend as much on innovation in organizational structures as it does on the innovation in technologies. So the challenge to utilities is that the delivery mechanism for energy services using renewables and distributed, new, radical technologies requires them to abandon the culture and the structure of control that made them a success.