The Colombian government issued a mandate to expand the availability of electricity to the remote area of Acandi by building five solar hybrid installations, or microgrids. Acandi is mostly jungle, located on the Caribbean Sea bordering Panama. There is no connection to the electrical grid there, and residents have access to electrical power provided just a few hours a day by diesel generators.
The microgrids include solar panels from Trina Solar, batteries from Trojan Battery, and Sunny Boy and Sunny Island inverters from SMA. Four of the PV systems were designed to cover most of the electricity demand, but not all. For example, the microgrid in Trigana-Choco covers 60% of demand and those in Chugandi & Caleta cover 80%. Because of this, the systems also in include Cummins diesel generators, which provide the additional power when needed and they also act as a backup in case of several days of rain. The Aguas Blancas installation covers 100% of the needed electricity, but it also has a diesel generator as backup.
Reducing dependence on diesel fuel
One of the greatest incentives to installing these microgrids was to reduce the use of diesel fuel, according to Ana Maria Murillo, Business Director of Tecmac Ingenieria, the local solar installer.
Not only are generators loud and noisy, but because the area can only be accessed by boat, transportation costs are prohibitively high. They also wanted to become less dependent on the generators, because when a generator broke down, the community would have to go without electricity until someone could fix it—which could be a while in these remote locations.
Tecmac Ingenieria, based in Cali, Colombia, installed the systems using local labor to help with the transportation of equipment.
The greatest challenge, according to Murillo, was transporting all the equipment by boat.
And one of the design challenges was to ensure the safety of the equipment in the event of tropical storms. Murillo said that the batteries, diesel generators and inverters are located in a room built to house the systems and prevent damage of the equipment from external factors such as rain, heat or storms. While the equipment is safe from storms, like any off-grid system, they do require regular maintenance. The maintenance is done by the electric company that owns all of the microgrids. The systems integrator commissioned the project and trained the electric company to do the maintenance of the batteries, which involves adding distilled water every month or less frequently depending on their use.
The five systems were commissioned in May of 2015 and have been providing power by sunlight to run lights, radios, televisions and to charge cell phones for homes, schools and even a store. Prior to the microgrid installations, residents could only use power when the generators were turned on. Now, with electricity for more than 5 to 6 hours a day, “they don’t have to plan their day around the time that they have electricity. The kids can study at night, the mothers can cook in the evening without the need of using candles,” Murillo said. She noted that an added benefit is that the solar hybrid systems provide more consistent and reliable energy than using diesel generators alone.
Written by Anne Fischer, Managing Editor, Solar Novus Today