Published on: Oct 04, 2023
The Nanogrid Revolution
Admittedly, it sounds like another buzzword where you don't really know whether it's a new type of grill grid or tiny crystal structures. However, the term nanogrid is becoming increasingly important, especially in the energy industry. Why is this the case? Because our world is changing.
How did the Swiss electricity grid actually developed?
Historically, the first electricity generators in Switzerland were the water wheels of grain mills, which were then equipped with a generator and sold the electricity they produced to the surrounding households. They were the very first nanogrids, which over time grew together to form the extensive patchwork of grids we know today.
This order is currently getting pretty mixed up. Why? As the Association of Swiss Electricity Companies (VSE) put it in a recent press release: "Decarbonization and increasingly decentralized electricity production will make the distribution grid the main arena." In future, the music will therefore increasingly be played in the former nanogrids. New models such as the "Association for Self-Consumption (ZEV)" or the "Local Electricity Community (LEG)" are emerging, creating the legal basis for the nanogrids.
In future, electricity will increasingly be generated, stored and traded locally, as in the example of the ETH spin-off Exnaton. As a result, local nanogrids will also become partially self-sufficient and take on more and more tasks of grid stabilization and local supply security. The growing number of electric cars, buses and trucks with bidirectional charging stations will form a segment of their own.
A leap to the south
Let us now take a long leap to the south, to the south-western tip of Nigeria. The current energy supply situation there is as follows:
Source: Reiner Lemoine Institut gGmbH
Only 60% of households are supplied via the national grid. In addition, the security of supply is not always guaranteed, even for households and companies that are connected to the grid. The Reiner Lemoine Institut gGmbH has investigated how the remaining households could be supplied with electricity. The result: to a large extent through individual nano- and mini-grids, which will grow together over time and merge partially or completely with the national power grid. And this is where Nigeria's history meets that of Switzerland, albeit with a slight time lag.
Leapfrogging in Nigeria
What is really exciting about the story, however, is that markets like Nigeria make it possible to test new models that could later have revolutionary consequences in Switzerland. Leapfrogging.
The skepticism that Liliane Ableitner from Exnaton initially experienced with the Quartierstrom project in Switzerland is something she would hardly have encountered in Nigeria. In practically all southern countries, we were met with great interest and openness, even from government circles, regarding innovative models with nanogrids and new types of electricity market models. I remember having interesting discussions with Nick Beglinger on this topic early on and we tried to derive models for the Global South based on the district electricity project.
Warum sind die Nanogrid "Kleinstnetze" für Afrika so wichtig?
Completely incomprehensible to us, but unfortunately a reality in southern countries, is the catastrophic energy supply situation in the hundreds of thousands of small villages. Sources of light there are open fires, candles, candle lamps or flashlights with dry batteries. All equally harmful to the environment and expensive.
The only new alternatives on the market are tiny solar lamps or so-called "solar home systems". Every household buys or leases a tiny, also very expensive system. These do not allow SMEs to be supplied with electricity, nor can they cover the growing demand for electricity over time. They are dead-end technologies.
Only nano- and mini-grids based on sustainable energy generation such as solar, wind, water, geothermal or biomass, with a gradual expansion as demonstrated by the Reiner Lemoine Institute using Nigeria as an example, enable a truly sustainable, affordable and needs-based electricity supply in southern countries.
Nanogrids, what next?
After years of pilot projects, explanations, presentations and demonstration projects, the term "nanogrid" has now finally become established even with large organizations such as UNDP and the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit GmbH, as the picture of EnDev shown at the beginning of this article shows. The next step will be to prove the reality of large-scale scaling with several thousand households and lower electricity costs for end consumers than the current alternatives on the market.
Innovative operating, grid and electricity market models with approaches such as Exnaton will follow and the most successful models in the global South will be "re-imported" to Switzerland after a great deal of time, political discussions and regulatory adjustments have taken place. Just as has already happened in other areas such as mobile payment. M-PESA has been widely used in Kenya since 2005. In Switzerland, it took another eleven years before TWINT came onto the market.