Written by: Olle Olsson & Karina Barquet, SEI. This article was originally published as part of a series on sei.org.
Previously, we discussed Off-grid innovation in the WASH sector >>
In this article, we highlight some of the tensions that arise from an ongoing shift in the relationship between the costs of single large systems, which are based on grids and one or a few large processing facilities, and several small systems, with a large number of onsite stand-alone solutions that perform largely the same functions as large grids do. However, it is important to note that tensions arise when trying to integrate these two types of systems, for example by adapting small-scale and mass-produced technologies into existing technological systems and regulatory frameworks that are largely based on paradigm of extensive grids and a few large processing facilities.
What if there are no such systems in place to begin with?
This is a situation that is all too familiar to many people in the world today. Close to a billion people lack access to electricity altogether and many more have unreliable connections and suffer from frequent outages. More than half the world’s population lack access to safely managed sanitation and around two billion people have no access to properly managed drinking water. One of the main reasons for this is that even in rich stable democracies it is difficult enough to build, operate and maintain large-scale grid-based infrastructure systems that provide electricity and water and sanitation services. It is even more so in countries with weak institutions, especially if these infrastructure systems are based on designs adapted to, for example, European conditions.
Infrastructure, like power transmission cables, is very capital-intensive. In places with fragile institutions and/or difficult geographical conditions there may be little hope that large grid-based solutions can contribute to improved access to proper energy and WASH services any time soon. From this perspective, then, the fast and accelerating pace of innovation in standardized and modular solutions, which can be rapidly deployed close to the consumer and in the form of small individual projects, is promising.
Solar home systems, typically consisting of a solar panel, a cellphone charger and a couple of solar lanterns, are already bringing substantial improvements to the daily lives of millions of people. There is also a rapidly growing market for efficient refrigerators, fans and televisions specifically designed to be operated using stand-alone solar PV systems. As solutions that can function in situations without available grid infrastructure become cheaper, they are spurring new innovation in specific settings as an alternative to relying on painstakingly adapting solutions designed for a conventional grid-based setting.
This entails a substantial change in how energy and WASH services are provided, from having been based on a top-down infrastructure model to what increasingly resembles a model for consumer goods and household appliances. So, it seems the path is clear and laid out towards a future where sustainability problems stemming from lack of access to energy and WASH services are a thing of the past. But is it as straightforward as that?
New tech – new narrative? – the SEI Gridless Solutions Initiative
There seem to be very large opportunities that arise in the wake of the rapid pace of innovation in what we call “gridless solutions”. These are technologies that are based on standardized designs that can be modularly deployed at the level of individual households or small communities and provide stand-alone access to energy and WASH services in settings with little or no available grid infrastructure.
However, while such technologies certainly appear to be characterized by more rapid innovation than those based on the “large grid plus large centralized plant” model discussed in this series, technological innovation by itself does not solve sustainability problems. Rapid innovation needs to be leveraged and translated into equally rapid service provision and uptake.
Here, there is still much work to be done. Getting alignment between business model development, financing mechanisms, regulatory frameworks and institutional configurations and ensuring they keep up with technological developments will be quite challenging. These are some of the issues addressed by SEI’s Gridless Solutions Initiative, which aims to identify and help mitigate the key obstacles that stand in the way of gridless solutions realizing their potential.
We think that there is a lot of cross-sector learning to be done when it comes to things like financing, business-model development and adaptation of basic technological designs to different use cases. In addition, we explore the potential for synergies that can emerge when gridless technologies for energy and WASH are combined, perhaps most notably in the way that gridless solar PV solutions can be used for things like water desalination or purification in off-grid settings.
But it is also very challenging, so we try to link up and engage in partnerships and joint projects with actors who have deep expertise in different subfields. One early example of this is the sWASH & grow project, led by RISE Research Institutes of Sweden, where we are collaborating with innovators and humanitarian organizations to find ways to accelerate deployment and uptake of innovative, sustainable and inclusive WASH solutions in humanitarian aid settings.
It is important to emphasize that we do not believe that gridless solutions are by themselves a panacea. Electricity and WASH systems based on large centralized units and extensive grid networks currently play and will continue to play an essential part in providing vital basic services to billions of people around the world. There is a lot of ongoing innovation within monitoring and operations of water and wastewater utilities, such as digital twins, the use and provision of data for smarter services and increased consumer participation. In addition, innovation in governance will most likely lead to increased efficiency so that the lifetime of a utility can be extended. Also, some argue that the next big thing in utilities is the use and sharing of data that will enable the decentralization of services around a utility (e.g. different entrepreneurs being responsible for different parts of the wastewater treatment process) and this might decrease the operating costs of utility providers. These kinds of innovations could help shift the upward trend in grid costs, which would be highly desirable because it would further strengthen the portfolio of technologies that enable sustainability.
In other words, the Gridless Solutions Initiative is not based on an ideological preference for small-scale solutions. For example, while solar PV can be deployed at a small scale, what has been central to its success is the ability to draw on automated mass-manufacturing and globally integrated supply chains. Instead, the underlying thinking behind the initiative rests on a pragmatic recognition of how techno-economic megatrends are working in favour of solutions that are based on mass-manufacturing rather than on-site construction; standardization rather than bespoke design; and granular deployment rather than megaprojects.
We’re looking forward to getting to work.