Off the Grid? Or Make Your Own Grid?

Solar cells are ubiquitous in this remote Thai sub-district.
January 16, 2015 There are many reasons people want to get "off the grid." From unstable energy prices, to environmental concerns, to even just a search for independence, the list is long and diverse. Just as diverse are attempts to "get off the grid." But as one community in Thailand is proving, sometimes building your own grid is just as good, maybe better.

The "Pa Deng model" is a project born out of necessity. The national power grid simply didn't reach the farms and villages in this remote sub-district located south of Bangkok along the border with Myanmar in Phetchaburi province. Several failed attempts at simply handing out technology had frustrated many, and the founders of this project, including one Ministry of Energy employee, decided to take matters into their own hands.

The result is a "grid" of sorts that begins almost immediately where the national power grid ends. Solar panels and biogas systems can be spotted as you travel deeper into this remote area. Eventually one will reach the Pa Deng model's alternative energy center, established in a clearing above a lazy irrigation canal.

Biogas for cooking and electricity.
The entire center is powered by a variety of on-site solar systems along with the first biogas system in the district. All of the food cooked at the center is done so using biogas, and a generator hooked up to biogas supplies extra energy during poor weather and at peak hours.

The center is used as a staging ground for installing technology across the region, as well as for training. Many of those helping the founding members of the team are volunteers who are themselves end users of solar and biogas systems. Together, the team and the community work together to expand and improve the power grid.

While traditional power grids consist of a centralized power plant, transmission lines, and meters for power consumption along with unpleasantness like meter readers, rationing, and bills, this do-it-yourself power grid consists instead of a network of knowledge, collaboration, and mutual technical support and learning.

Little money is involved beyond purchasing actual components, with many community members helping each other out knowing that in the future they will have others to depend on when they need help.  By definition, this is a maker community that just so happens to focus on alternative energy (out of necessity) and how it can help them farm more efficiently.

An old house with new technology.
The advantages of building your own local grid versus simply going it alone, is the added benefit of having a community of support and a larger pool of individuals learning and sharing their experiences to improve the overall network.

In Pa Deng, the founders described the many challenges they face, including a lack of funding. Still, what they have accomplished is amazing and their story is beginning to spread. At the 3 day training camp they organize several times a month at the center, people from across Thailand learn about their success and bring those lessons back home with them.

Building Your Own Power Grid 

The Pa Deng model consists first of solar systems designed to power either an entire home, or to power stand-alone systems like water pumps or spotlights. Stand-alone projects generally have enough energy to operate even when weather isn't cooperating. Home systems don't. To augment solar power during poor weather or at peak hours, biogas is used to operate a standard gasoline generator. The generator charges the battery banks the solar panels would generally charge.

A diagram of the center's own solar powered system.

Stand-alone projects that for whatever reason cannot operate because of the limitations of solar panels, can have their batteries swapped out from the bank charged by biogas.

When not powering the generator, the biogas can be sent by a line directly to the kitchen, cutting out entirely the cost of buying compressed cooking gas from a centralized supplier. The biogas itself is created by an anaerobic digestion process in a sealed vessel.

Examples of stand-alone solar powered systems used around the center.
Bacteria breaks down organic material into natural gas (methane). Input material includes animal waste, cleared vegetation from fields after harvests, and even kitchen scraps left over after meals. The process of turning waste into energy means that in addition to providing cooking gas and electricity, it also provides a means of on-site waste management. The material left over after everything is digested is used as organic fertilizer, meaning that the entire process operates as a cycle (the plants the fertilizer helps to grow will eventually end up sent as waste into the biogas generator).

The initial investment for biogas is minimal. Solar powered systems, including panels, inverters, controllers, and the batteries consists of a much higher initial investment, but saves money in the long run. For stand-alone applications like a water pump that is generally diesel powered, a solar system is both cheaper and begins returning savings within months. Stand-alone projects are also a good way to wade into solar power, learning the basics before committing to a much larger investment.

As the team at Pa Deng noted, a few years ago this was not possible at all. Because of the growing DIY movement and the growing number of individuals applying their hobby to practical real-world problems (as the Pa Deng team itself is comprised of), and the dropping costs of solar panels, a local power grid is now possible, perhaps even preferable.

The Future  is What You Make of It

Makers should find this success exciting for a few reasons. First, the prospect of local makers creating their own grids they can modify, hack, and run themselves seems the next logical step for anyone involved in electronics, hardware, and making. Second, the creation of open source software and hardware to help improve and augment the basic systems used to power communities like in Pa Deng offers many opportunities. An Arduino developed specifically to control alternative energy projects in a certain area where a certain mix of alternative energy solutions is being used, would be a niche small business market waiting to be tapped.

There is also the challenge of integrating the various systems that comprise an alternative power grid. Biogas production is very low-tech, with many opportunities to introduce automation, monitoring, and optimization. What has been achieved already with biogas is impressive, but what could be done to make it more mainstream, efficient, and adopted by more communities? That is a question makers can help answer.

Installing a timer on a solar powered water pump. Now the farmer can make use of his time elsewhere.
Solar powered systems found around a farm also require automation and coordination. Remote control could also be introduced. An Arduino suite that is designed specifically for this, along with an appropriate software library could take the Pa Deng model to the next level. Combined with smart farms or personal manufacturing (or both) could result in high tech, completely independent villages that not only produce their own food, but also their own energy and technology.

In Pa Deng, there were automated water pumps using timers to turn on and off at programmed intervals during the day. These systems were solar powered, meaning that farmers could simply set such a system up and let it sit, only checking on it if and when it broke down or needed adjustment. Linking these systems together and allowing farmers to monitor and control them remotely would improve efficiency and free farmers to tend to other activities, even allowing for the posibility of economic diversification (like employing personal fabrication or processing produce grown on-site).

Open source Arduino + solar power.
Pa Deng proves that even in the most remote areas, technology can be adopted by local people who are more than capable of learning how to use it and even improve it. Together, with makers based in urban centers, human progress and profitability can become one in the same. The decentralization of power production and the creation of technology to improve it represents a sea of opportunities and a much more viable "distribution of wealth," that appears to be succeeding where handouts have failed.

Additionally, while areas like Pa Deng have been initially left behind, with their growing DIY power grid, many residents are now more educated and technically competent then those who have enjoyed the national power grid for decades. Electricity is power. So is knowledge. Having both surely couldn't hurt.

 BIT Magazine is a bi-lingual platform for Thailand's maker movement to connect, grow, and collaborate with maker communities abroad. Follow us on Twitter here or on Facebook here.
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