7 July 2020

New renewable energy microgrids can bring sustainable electricity to rural Amazon communities

New technology could provide communities in the Amazon with clean, secure electricity fuelled by solar energy and locally-available fruit residues and manure.

A small green hut next to a set of electricity wires
A diesel generator hut which could be replaced by a cleaner biogas generator and a hybrid microgrid

Researchers from the University of Sheffield’s Energy Institute are working on new technology that can provide communities in the Amazon with clean, secure electricity. Together with colleagues from universities in Brazil, the team of researchers are developing a microgrid which provides energy using a combination of solar energy and biogas produced from locally available biowastes such as fruit residues and manure.

Dr Davide Poggio from the Department of Mechanical Engineering has worked with international colleagues Dr Alessandro Bezerra Trindade from the Universidade Federal do Amazonas and Dr Danilo Iglesias Brandao from the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais on the project, which is supported by the University of Sheffield's Research England QR GCRF Institutional Allocation.

The number of people in the world who do not have access to electricity is still around 800 million as of 2018 (IEA, 2020). It’s estimated that about 155,000 households in the Brazilian Amazon region remain without access to electricity, clustered in very isolated communities which cannot access the national grid service.

So far, off-grid generation through diesel fuel has traditionally been the only solution available, however the high cost, environmental impact and insecure supply of diesel remains a constant challenge. Limited access to modern services is one of the main reasons people living in Amazonian communities move to bigger cities. However, if local electricity is more easily accessible, it is hoped that more people will decide to live in the Amazon, which will help to preserve the cultural riches and steward the forest ecosystem from damaging practices such as the illegal timber and mining industries.

Beginning in May 2019, the researchers combined their expertise to try and find a solution. The result is the concept of a hybrid microgrid, which uses solar energy and biogas from organic wastes to generate electricity, which can be used to power household appliances, connect to the internet or for productive uses such as water pumping, agriculture or storage of crops.

In this concept, biowastes like fruit residues, agricultural by-products and animal manure are converted into biogas through an anaerobic digester. Using up this biowaste improves health and hygiene for the community, and the resulting biogas is fed into specialist equipment that produces electricity. A microgrid controller manages the supply of energy from solar and biogas and ensures that the electrical demand from the community is met. The technology is also incredibly adaptable – even in periods of low solar energy production, for example in rainy seasons, the production of electricity is still possible, as the amount of electricity produced can be controlled by feeding different amounts of biowaste into the digester and producing the needed quantity of biogas.

a group of people stand in a green forest in front of sign
L-R: Alessandro Bezerra Trindade (Universidade Federal do Amazonas), Danilo Iglesias Brandao (Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais), Davide Poggio (The University of Sheffield), Liane Lima and Marcelo Castro (Fundação Amazonas Sustentável)

In August 2019, the researchers travelled to meet communities from the Rio Negro basin (map) to identify local resources and discover the demands and agricultural practices and assess the energy needs of the people living there. The team also met with the local NGO Fundação Amazonas Sustentável to ensure wider participation with the project and to identify how the new technology can properly benefit the local area and integrate with their productive practices.

This initial data from the field trip has been used to design the proposed system, and to create a mathematical model for use in different communities. The combination of the success of the trip and of the system design means the project can now move to the next step: building a pilot-scale prototype of the hybrid solar and biogas microgrid in one of the visited communities. This will bring a wealth of data and will help to attract further interest and support to make a difference to communities in the Amazon. 

Dr Davide Poggio says of the project:  

Access to energy can empower local communities by providing the ability to make more varied and exciting choices for their livelihood. As engineers, our role is to design clean and efficient ways that can support this empowerment. We are very pleased with the progress of this international project so far, and look forward to the next phases. It has been fantastic to collaborate with the Brazilian colleagues, and to meet with the communities to discuss the project and make some initial steps together. It is important that we work and dream together, inspired by the overwhelming natural beauty of the Amazon"

Dr Davide Poggio

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