FLOK: Policy paper on distributed energy

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(draft 19 May 2014)

Executive summary

This policy document examines the application of principles of social knowledge economy to the energy sector. In the Introduction we explain the concept of the social knowledge economy with reference to the role of access to knowledge and draw a distinction between social and capitalist conceptions of the knowledge economy.

The next section, Critique of capitalist models, looks at how the mode of energy production which developed over the space of two hundred years of capitalist domination has, through the continued destruction of the natural environment and the prevalence of economic models driven by a need for permanent growth, resulted in the encroachment on the Rights of Nature and in the perpetuation of the irrational use of non-renewable natural resources. The neoliberal system has delivered unregulated energy markets and a global privatisation process, which undermines the public and social control over a key sector for the production and reproduction of modern societies, both in the Global North and South.

In the next section, Alternatives to Capitalist Models, as its title implies, we introduce the model of distributed (peer-to-peer) energy, which has emerged as a powerful alternative to centralised energy models based on private ownership and describe briefly its main features: (a) the utilisation of renewable energy sources, (b) the elevation of users into co-producers through the democratisation of the means of energy production and distribution and (c) the communal management of the relevant infrastructures. Recognising that the production of energy could be more effectively organised as a commons - rather than as a commodity - should be the fundamental principle underlying any alternative policy proposals for the energy sector. Following this description, the model of distributed energy is illustrated through three case studies. The first case study, which discusses the development of a small-scale, distributed energy infrastructure on the greek island of Kythnos, illustrates an energy model that is well-adapted to the needs of small communities, especially in remote regions, and provides an example of how the energy sector could be transformed in the direction of a post-fossil fuel economy through the development of distributed, yet collectively-owned and controlled, energy infrastructures. The second and third case studies, which focus on the adoption of the model in Nepal and on the deployment of locally manufactured small wind and hydro turbines, demonstrate the benefits derived from the use of appropriate, open-source, small-scale, distributed energy technologies that are locally-manufactured and user-controlled.

In the next section, Preliminary general principles for policy making, we sum up the conclusions drawn from the case studies in the form of general policy principles, which, as the follow-up section demonstrates, are aligned with the Ecuadorian policy framework, as reflected in the aims and policies put forward in the Constitution of the Republic of Ecuador and in the National Plan for Good Living. The concluding section develops these policy principles into a set of policy recommendations for the implementation and adoption of distributed energy infrastructures.

Introduction and focus: basic principles

This policy document examines the application of principles of social knowledge economy to the energy sector of the economy. In this section we shall clarify the concept of the knowledge economy and draw a distinction between social knowledge economies and capitalist knowledge economies.

The concept and forms of the knowledge economy

In contrast to traditional conceptions of the factors of production that are centred on land, labour and capital, the concept of the knowledge economy emphasises the role of knowledge as the key driver of economic activity (Bell 1974; Drucker 1969; for a critical analysis of the concept, see Webster 2006). This implies, of course, that the decisive means of production in a knowledge economy is access to knowledge. From this standpoint, it is precisely the question of how access to knowledge is being managed that largely determines the character of an economic system. Capitalist knowledge economies use the institution of intellectual property to create conditions of scarcity in knowledge: thus, knowledge is privatised and locked up in property structures which limit its diffusion across the social field. A social knowledge economy, by contrast, is characterised by open access to knowledge (Ramirez 2014) and so reconfigures the application of intellectual property rights to prevent the monopolization and private enclosure of knowledge: 'knowledge must not be seen as a means of unlimited individual accumulation, nor a treasury generating differentiation and social exclusion' but as 'a collective heritage [which] is...a catalyst of economic and productive transformation' (National Plan for Good Living 2013-2017, english version, p. 61, italics ours) and 'a mechanism for emancipation and creativity' (Ibid, p. 41). In a nutshell, a social knowledge economy is an economy in which knowledge is seen as a public and common good; an economy which thrives on the ‘open commons of knowledge’ (National Plan for Good Living 2013-2017, spanish version, p. 67, italics ours).

Critique of capitalist models

Energy production has been marked by a tendency towards increased scale and centralisation for the greatest part of its history since the industrial age (Mumford 1963). This model though, in which power is generated at central power stations that deliver electricity to sites of demand through the electricity grid, began to falter in the 1960s, as environmental concerns about the use of non-renewable fuels and the increased potential to realise efficiency gains by locating productive units closer to sites of demand strongly favoured decentralisation in power generation and system management. In parallel, the strain placed upon centralised models by the growing demand for energy in the 21st century has reinforced this thrust towards distributed models, as did the increased availability of small-scale power generation technologies (Takahashi et al. 2005). However, in spite of these pressures for the adoption of decentralised structures, the mode of energy production remains to this day predominantly centralised.

To put this tendency for increased scale and centralisation into perspective, one must understand that the (centralised) architecture of the existing infrastructure is a 'legacy' inherited from the industrial age and the system of mass production. Based on the same logic that characterises the way in which the production of goods is organised and centralised in factories in the system of mass production, the design of the existing energy system is essentially the same model adapted to the production and distribution of energy. As a result, it is subject to the very same problems that beset the mass production model: first, as this model is oriented towards the production of an undifferentiated commodity for a homogeneous market, it is incapable of covering the diverse needs of different users. In a word, it is unfit for a market characterised by a diversity of user needs.[2] Second, like the system of mass production, the model of centralised, mass production of energy depends on the continued availability of cheap fossil fuels—coal, oil, and natural gas (Bauwens 2009, 2012). Without doubt, that is a very dangerous dependence because by ignoring the underlying reality of the fact that an era of scarcity in fossil fuels—especially oil—is upon us, it maintains the irrational and environmentally-destructive use of those natural resources.

In addition to its inability to satisfy the heterogeneous needs of end users and its self-destructive dependence on fossil fuels, the existing model of energy production contravenes the development of a post-consumerist society. Through the centralisation of the means of energy production in large power plants, it effectively makes end users dependent on the utility companies for the supply of electricity, thereby reinforcing and perpetuating a consumerist way of life. As they are being locked in a relationship of passive comsumption of energy, users are condemned to remain in a state of 'energy-illiteracy' and obliviousness to the nature and workings of the energy system. The resulting indifference of users to the environmental implications attendant upon the current mode of production and consumption of energy is of course a dangerous form of ignorance, as it promotes the irrational and environmentally-irresponsible consumption of energy.

Much the same criticism applies to centralised models of renewable energy which are currently in vogue among proponents of 'green capitalism' (e.g. Hawken et al. 1999) and 'green growth' (e.g. OECD et al. 2012; World Bank 2012). Although they are based on the use of renewable energy sources and are therefore supportive of the re-orientation of the mode of energy production in the direction of greater environmental sustainability and eco-friendliness, the logic of mass production of a commodity for a homogenous, mass consumer market remains the organising principle of those infrastructures. As a result, they do not have the capacity to meet the increasingly more varied needs of energy users. Worse still, by keeping users in a state of passive consumerism and energy analphabetism, the underlying centralisation of the means of energy production constitutes a barrier to the emergence of a post-consumerist knowledge society.[3]

To recap, existing centralised models of energy production, including those that make use of renewable energy sources, are based on outdated logics which run counter to the needs and aims of a post-consumerist knowledge society. By contrast, what a post-carbon, post-capitalist society needs is a different mode of energy production that is based not only on the use of renewable energy sources but also on the pervasive participation of users in the production, control and ownership process that can be achieved through the decentralisation and democratisation of the means of energy generation. This is essentially the model of distributed (or P2P) energy which, aside from the use of renewable energy resources, is characterised by (Papanikolaou 2009):

  • the transformation of users into co-producers through the decentralisation of the means of production;
  • the volunteer participation of individual producers, households and communities;
  • and the communal character of the management, control and ownership of the underlying infrastructures.

Distributed energy technologies and cooperative management and operation tools can thus create the enabling material conditions for the emergence of the energy commons in contrast to the traditional state-private ownership models that developed in the course of the 20th century.

In the next section, we illustrate the model of distributed energy through three case studies. The first one looks at how a small, isolated community on the greek island of Kythnos, which was not supported by the island's central electricity grid, was able to self-satisfy its energy needs through the development of a small-scale, distributed energy infrastructure (known as a microgrid). The second case study, which focuses on the adoption of small-scale hydropower infrastructures in Nepal, illustrates the benefits of affordable, appropriate, distributed energy technologies which are locally-manufactured and user-controlled. The third case study presents an assessment of locally manufactured small wind turbine technology that is widely used in rural electrification applications and is developed by a global community of users, along with other open-source renewable energy technologies such as pico hydroelectric plants.

Alternative models: Distributed energy

A typical example of distributed energy infrastructures is that of microgrids (sometimes referred to as minigrids), which have been the fastest developing and most dynamic field of the global energy system over the past years.[4] Combining renewable energy production and ICT with a new policy framework for the energy market, microgrids provide scientific, technical, political, organisational and social tools for a fundamental transformation of the energy system both in the local and transnational level. Future microgrids could exist as energy-balanced cells within existing power distribution grids or stand-alone power networks within small communities. New control capabilities allow distribution networks to operate isolated from the central grid as well in case of faults or other external disturbances, thus contributing to improved quality of supply.[5]

Microgrids build on increasingly available microgenerators, such as micro-turbines, fuel cells and photovoltaic (PV) arrays, wind turbines and small hydro gensets together with storage devices, such as flywheels, energy capacitors and batteries and controllable (flexible) loads (e.g. electric vehicles) at the distribution level. Improvements in the networking technology in terms of power management and end-user technology as well as in ICT for load management, remote operation and metering systems, data analysis and billing algorithms have contributed to the increasing deployment of modern microgrids.

The 'Microgrids for rural electrification' report (Schnitzer et al. 2014) published in February 2014 describes the potential of microgrids in rural and peri-urban areas in developing countries: 'Over 1.2 billion people do not have access to electricity, which includes over 550 million people in Africa and 300 million people in India alone...In many of these places, the traditional approach to serve these communities is to extend the central grid. This approach is technically and financially inefficient due to a combination of capital scarcity, insufficient energy service, reduced grid reliability, extended building times and construction challenges to connect remote areas. Adequately financed and operated microgrids based on renewable and appropriate resources can overcome many of the challenges faced by traditional lighting or electrification strategies'.

Case study 1: The Kythnos island community project

Kythnos is a small island in the Aegean sea in Greece. As is typical of islands in general, Kythnos is cut off from the national grid on mainland Greece. It has its own island grid, but this does not however have the capacity to electrify all settlements on the island. Thus, in the framework of two European Commission projects (PV-MODE, JOR3-CT98-0244 and MORE, JOR3CT98-0215), a micro-grid was installed in 2001, which has since provided electricity for 12 houses in a small valley that is about 4 km from the closest medium voltage line (Hatziargyriou et al. 2007, pp. 80-82; Tselepis 2010).[6] Being one of the very first pilot installations in Europe, the project has been frequently cited as an example of a cost-effective and environmentally sustainable way of providing a small community with electricity through a model of energy generation at the site of demand using renewable sources.

Fig. 1: Kythnos island community microgrid project: supply of 12 houses (R&D european projects: PV-Mode, More Microgrids) (Source: Hatziargyriou et al. 2007, p. 81)

In more technical detail, the roll-out of the project was premised on the installation of a 1-phase Microgrid composed of the overhead power lines and a communication cable running in parallel. The grid and safety specifications for the house connections respect the technical solutions of the Public Power Corporation, which is the local electricity utility. The reason for such a decision was taken on the grounds that in the future the Microgrid might be connected to the island grid. The power in each user's house is limited by a 6 Amp fuse. The settlement is situated about 4 kilometres away from the closest pole of the medium voltage line of the island. A system house of 20 m2 surface area was built in the middle of the settlement in order to house the battery inverters, the battery banks, the diesel genset and its tank, the computer equipment for monitoring and the communication hardware.

The grid electrifying the users is powered by 3 Sunny-island battery inverters connected in parallel to form one strong single-phase grid in a master-slave configuration, allowing the use of more than one battery inverter only when more power is demanded by the consumers. Each battery inverter has a maximum power output of 3.6kW. The battery inverters in the Kythnos system have the capability to operate in both isochronous or droop mode. The operation in frequency droop mode gives the possibility to pass information on to switching load controllers in case the battery state of charge is low as well as to limit the power output of the PV inverters when the battery bank is full.

The users' system is composed of 10kWp of photovoltaics divided in smaller sub-systems and a battery bank of nominal capacity of 53kWh and a diesel genset with a nominal output of 5 kVA. A second system with about 2 kWp mounted on the roof of the system house is connected to a Sunny-island inverter and a 32 kWh battery bank. This second system provides the power for the monitoring and communication needs of the components. The PV modules are integrated as canopies to various houses of the settlements.

To recap, the case of the implementation of the microgrid on the island of Kyhtnos illustrates a model of distributed energy which has enabled a small, isolated community to become energy-autonomous in an ecologically-conscious and sustainable fashion.

Case study 2: Distributed energy infrastructures in Nepal based on the use of small-scale, hydropower technologies

Small-scale hydropower, or micro-hydro, is one of the most cost-effective energy technologies to be considered for rural electrification. It makes use of a local energy resource, which can be usefully harnessed for rural energy demands from small rivers, where there is a gradient of a few meters and the flow rate is more than a few litres per second. It is a clean option based on locally available resources, and can be reliable and affordable when appropriate technologies and approaches are used for its implementation, operation and management. It can be economically and socially viable, using local materials and capabilities for installation. Hydro is an option which can generate energy 24 hours a day continuously at its full capacity (if needed), the marginal costs are negligible, and it can thus promote job creation and the productive use of energy for income generation and social development of communities. There are a large number of successful small hydro projects in various developing countries, which show their adaptability to the local conditions, their sustainability and their positive contribution to local development.

Micro-hydro plants (from 5kW to 100kW) basically just divert flowing river water, with no significant dams, and use the forces of gravity and falling water to spin turbines that generate power before churning the water back into the river downstream. In these 'run of the river' systems, water is channeled off through small canals and stored briefly in a settling tank to separate sediment, then dropped through a steep pipeline that delivers it into a turbine.

According to the experience of Practical Action (2014) (an NGO inspired by economist Schumacher’s [1973] Small is Beautiful) small hydropower technology is one of the small-scale renewable energy technologies that is most adaptable to local conditions, with great potential for sustainability. Introduced properly and within an appropriate policy framework, it can promote local technology and skills. Small-scale hydro energy schemes can be entirely operated and managed by the community itself, reducing costs and making an efficient use of human and natural resources.

Although implementing agencies and international consultants claim a relatively high investment cost for this technology, Practical Action (2014) states that projects based on the use of locally available resources and on the adoption of appropriate technologies and approaches, are characterised by a much lower cost. From implementations in Peru, Sri Lanka, Nepal and several other countries, Practical Action has found that for small hydropower systems the cost per kW installed ranges from US$ 1,500 to US$ 3,000 per Unit kW installed, which roughly means an investment cost of US$ 500 to US$ 1000 per connection. Technology research has reduced the cost of small hydro, and the free sharing of technology and know-how (encapsulated, for example, in the design manual for micro-hydro [Harvey 1993]) has created the capacity to manufacture locally much of the equipment. Alternative materials have been developed and skills transferred to local consultants to design and implement hydro systems. Local technicians (at community level) can operate and maintain these systems, and appropriate management and administrative models have been developed to suit local needs. As a result, there are now several countries with the capacity to manufacture and install equipment at very competitive costs. For the smaller hydropower schemes, major cost reductions have been achieved through the use of alternative materials and components, local capacity and skills: at present it is possible to find locally manufactured equipment for micro hydropower at one half, or even one third, of the cost of its imported equivalent. For pico-hydro (below 5 kW), it is possible to find components that cost one third to one fifth of the equivalent imported parts (e.g. synchronous generators, hydraulic governors and others) (Practical Action 2014).

The experience of Practical Action also shows that small hydro can create exceptionally low energy unit (kWh) costs compared to other options. With the appropriate technologies, implementation and management, the cost of a kWh for micro hydro can be as low as about one half of the cost of locally made wind energy systems and about one tenth of the unit energy cost of Solar Home Systems (for decentralised rural application) and finally about one half to one fourth of the unit cost of energy produced with diesel sets.

Fig. 2: Growth trend of Mini/Micro/Pico Hydro in Nepal[7]
Fig. 3: Micro-Hydro installation in Nepal (left). Training in Nepal (right)

Specifically in Nepal where about 63% of the households do not have access to electricity (World Bank 2010), since the industry’s birth in the 1960s some 2,200 micro-hydro plants have been put into place, totaling around 20MW[8], which now provide electricity for some 200,000 households (Handwerk 2012). Around 65 private companies provide services related to the implementation of micro hydropower projects under the aegis of the umbrella organisation called the Nepal Micro Hydropower Development Association.

The 323 operational RERL (Renewable Energy for Rural Livelihood program) facilities alone now create more than 600 full-time jobs and about 2,600 people have been technically trained on how to operate a facility. But micro-hydro's impact on employment goes further and includes specialized training to help spread electric access benefits throughout the community. Under the program more than 34,000 people, including 15,000 women, have been trained in larger efforts to develop capacity on renewable energy, manage local micro-hydro units and cooperatives, and initiate other environmentally related activities (Handwerk 2012).

Similar efforts have been performed in Sri Lanka,[9] Peru, Ecuador and other countries. In Ecuador a project by ESMAP (World Bank 2005) has undertaken the groundwork to establish the road map for picohydro development by initiating a market assessment for picohydro in the Andean region, by developing technical capacity to install and maintain picohydro systems at demonstration sites and by helping a small group of businesses see the commercial opportunities arising from the sale of picohydro systems in the country.

Table 1: Market Size for Picohydro in the Andean Region (Source: World Bank 2005)

In conclusion, the following characteristics and benefits of small-micro-pico hydro are supportive of the development of a social knowledge economy:

  • Use of local resources and technologies
  • Transfer of knowledge to local communities (the basics can be understood by most people). The knowledge refers not only to operation and maintenance but also to reproducibility, manufacture and technology improvement
  • Local manufacture of several components and local assembly: use and development of appropriate technology
  • Building with considerable participation by the beneficiary communities
  • Supporting local economy through workshops, installer companies, etc.
  • Community management of the infrastructure

Case-study 3: Open source technologies for distributed energy infrastructures

The Hugh Piggott (HP) small wind turbine (Piggot 2008) (see Fig. 4 below) has been used as the 'reference design' of the open-source small wind turbine, since the majority of existing locally manufactured small wind turbines have been based on this design.[10] To this date, three small wind turbines have been manufactured in practical student workshops, two for battery charging and two for grid connection, with rotor diameters of 1.8 m, 2.4 m and 4.3 m. The practical workshops are organised in the context of undergraduate dissertation projects and are open to all students of the NTUA. During these workshops, the small wind turbines are constructed from scratch by the participating students, a process which provides practical evidence of the ability of unqualified constructors to locally manufacture this small wind turbine technology. The educational aspect of these workshops is of significant value and provides a chance to experiment with a variation of learning processes.

Fig. 4 : A locally manufactured small wind turbine following the design manuals of Hugh Piggott (Source: www.rurerg.net)

The design manuals of Hugh Piggott have been a reference guide for locally manufactured small wind turbines worldwide and have proven to be valuable tools in spreading this knowledge, as they have been translated into more than 10 languages. It has been estimated that more than one thousand locally manufactured small wind turbines are based on the Hugh Piggott design, many of which are in operation around the world. As rural electrification has been an obvious application of this technology, many NGOs and groups have used these design manuals to manufacture small wind turbines in developing countries,[11] while construction seminars for DIY (do-it-yourself) enthusiasts are organised by several groups around the world.[12] Since 2012, the Wind Empowerment association[13] tries to network most of the organisations involved with locally manufactured small wind turbines around the world, with the aim of building the financial and human resources needed for the activities of these organisations, and performing joint technical research while sharing technical information.

Open hardware research and development

One of the main advantages of open source hardware designs, and of the 'open design' philosophy in general, is the adaptability of the designs produced. Open-source small wind turbine technology can be adapted to better suit different environments, such as coastal areas with high corrosion.

Another aspect of the adaptability of open hardware designs is the ability to use parts of the design in other open-source technologies and applications. This is the case of the open-source pico-hydro turbine developed in NTUA, which is a hybrid design between the locally manufactured axial flux permanent magnet generator (Piggott 2008) and the locally manufactured small hydro casing and turgo runner designs of Joseph Hartvigsen.[14] The specific design is a grid connected 350W hydroelectric which has been driven with a pump in the labs of NTUA (see Fig. 5 below) with satisfactory results, while a battery charging prototype of the same design has been in operation for one year in a rural site in Greece.

Fig. 5 : Open-source pico-hydroelectric developed in NTUA (Source: www.rurerg.net)

Preliminary general principles for policy making

Through the above case-studies, we have come to identify a set of enabling conditions, from which we can draw several general principles to guide policy making efforts aimed at reinforcing the development of a post-fossil fuel society that respects the Rights of Nature.

The democratisation of the means of energy production. As we saw in the case of the implementation of the micro-grid in Kythnos and of small-scale hydropower infrastructures in Nepal, the most readily visible effect of the adoption of distributed structures of energy generation is that it transforms consumers into producers and their homes into productive units. Distributed models such as those based on micro-grids imply the democratisation of the means of production through the use of shared and collectively owned systems of production, as the underlying technological infrastructure for the generation of energy is not centralised in large power plants but is installed in the very homes of end users. Energy consumers are thus being made responsible for the daily operation and management of this infrastructure. This investment of users with the means of production is the single most important condition for the emergence of the model of commons-based, peer production in the field of energy.

The importance of investment in 'energy literacy'. The transition to distributed energy models entails significant switching costs, as individual users (households) and communities are required to invest in familiarising themselves with new technologies, which they have to learn how to operate. Without the development and diffusion of such an 'energy literacy' across end users, attempts to set up distributed energy projects are bound to fail. That is why the design and implementation of such projects is often accompanied by training courses aimed at investing end users with the skills required to operate the relevant (so-called 'smart') technologies that are to be installed in their homes and communities. In this respect, those training courses are vehicles for the transfer of knowledge to local communities that will enable them to become energy-autonomous.

Community-driven development and the importance of user participation. Distributed energy models evolved out of the demand to respond to the needs of communities and individual households, located often in remote regions, which were either inadequately supported and provided for by the pre-existing centralised infrastructure or not at all. Their development has been largely 'bottom-up', initiated and carried out by small local communities, which have taken it upon themselves to bootstrap an infrastructure that better suits their needs. Most importantly, the participation of the community and its members is dictated by the fact that distributed energy models and technologies are best adopted when they are not imposed top-down but shared from user to user. As it is the users themselves who will be responsible for operating and managing these technologies on a daily basis, it is essential that they be involved in the process of design and implementation of distributed energy projects. Consequently, it is critical to ensure the participation of end users and local communities in the policy-making process, transforming it into a 'mode of social learning, rather than an exercise of political authority' (Pretty et al. 2002, p. 252). Such participation not only lends legitimacy to transition programs, as they have been co-designed and implemented with end users and their communities, but also empowers them, helping ensure that policies are truly responsive to their needs.

The significance of open source, appropriate technology. Distributed energy projects are characterised by their extensive use of open source technologies such as open source wind turbines and pico hydroelectric plants. That is so for manifold reasons. First of all, open source technologies – by virtue of the fact that their design information is freely available (under open licenses) – allow the broader community to participate in their design and development process, thereby resulting in rapid improvements in performance and reductions in production costs (Benkler 2006; Dafermos 2014). Indicatively, the cost of small-scale, locally-manufactured, open source hydropower technologies is about one third of the equivalent proprietary products (Practical Action 2014) and the same stands for locally manufactured small wind turbine technologies.[15] Yet, the significance of open source technologies is not confined to the realisation of cost reductions and performance improvements, which are made possible through their distributed development by a loosely coupled community of researchers, practitioners and hobbyists spread the world over. Equally important, open source technologies are designed with the principle of environmental sustainability in mind and in such a way as to be easily repairable and modifiable by end users. In that regard, they are paradigmatic of what is called sustainable design and appropriate technology (Pearce 2012; Wikipedia 2014a, 2014b): they are designed to last, rather than throw away and replace by newer technologies, 'they use less energy, fewer limited resources, do not deplete natural resources, do not directly or indirectly pollute the environment, and can be reused or recycled at the end of their useful life' (Wikipedia 2014a).

In the next section we situate the above principles in the Ecuadorian policy context.

Ecuadorian Policy Framework

The basic axis of the National Plan for Good Living 2013-2017 revolves around the transformation of the productive structure of Ecuador in the direction of a low-carbon, resource-preserving mode of organisation of productive activities that is characterised by its respect for the Rights of Nature and its ecological principles.

The task of transformation of the productive matrix is dictated by the fact that the nature of the existing economic system is clearly both environmentally and economically unsustainable. First of all, it is unsustainable because it is based on extractivist principles and, therefore, on the continued availability of fossil fuels: yet, as a result of 'the decrease in petroleum production volume in the highest-producing, or mature, fields', Ecuador is forced 'to prepare for a future in which petroleum resources run out and to seek energy alternatives', including 'the implementation of large hydropower projects [as well as] small energy generation projects using renewable sources – such as photovoltaic, wind, biomass and hydropower – in zones near consumers, and with participatory management by the Decentralized Autonomous Governments, community organizations and the private sector' (p. 44).[16]

However, the problem with the existing economic system extends beyond its total dependence on petroleum; equally problematic is that its orientation towards the production of 'commodities with low or no value-added' has created 'an incipient proto-industrial textile industry in colonial sweatshops. The country’s insertion in the worldwide capitalist system accentuates this pattern of accumulation based on exploiting the country’s huge natural wealth, and encourages rentist, non-innovative behavior among the economic groups that have dominated the country. This historical situation has placed Ecuador in a highly vulnerable situation of external dependence' (p. 49). The aim, therefore, of the transformation of the productive matrix is precisely to break free from this legacy by turning 'Ecuador from a commodity-exporting economy [in]to a knowledge economy: turning finite (non-renewable) resources into infinite (inexhaustible) goods such as knowledge, which multiplies when distributed rather than depleting itself' (Ibid.; also, see pp. 18, 37, 38)(see Fig. 6 below).

Fig. 6: Long-term strategy of accumulation, distribution and redistribution
(Source: National Plan for Good Living 2013-2017, p. 37, english version)

Another recurrent concern of public policy is sustainability. Crucially, its importance implies that 'the economic system does not automatically come first; on the contrary, it is subordinated and serves the lives of human beings and Nature' (Senplades [2009: 329] quoted in National Plan for Good Living, p. 73). The energy sector is a focal point: 'Energy is the lifeblood of the production system, so it is essential to increase the share of energy obtained from renewable sources...in order to achieve long-term sustainability' (Ibid., pp. 43-44). The National Plan therefore proposes 'to restructure the energy matrix under criteria of transforming the productive structure, inclusion, quality, energy sovereignty and sustainability, increasing the share of renewable energy' (Policy 11.1). Such a restructuring of the energy sector, as the National Plan underlines, must demonstrate a strong commitment to sustainability by promoting:

  • 'efficiency and greater involvement of sustainable renewable energies, as a measure to prevent environmental pollution' (Policy 7.7);
  • measures 'to prevent, control and mitigate environmental pollution in extraction, production, consumption and post-consumption' (Policy 7.8);
  • 'conscious, sustainable, efficient consumption patterns with a criterion of sufficiency within the planet’s limits' (Policy 7.9).

In a similar vein, the Constitution of the Republic of Ecuador emphasises that 'energy in all its forms' is a strategic sector with 'decisive economic, social, political and environmental influence' (Art. 313). Consequently, it underlines the need to ensure energy sovereignty (Art. 15, 284, 304, 334) as well as that economic development occurs 'within the biophysical limits of nature' (Art. 284/4, also see Art. 408). To achieve this, the Constitution mandates that it is the duty of the State to 'promote energy efficiency, the development and use of environmentally clean and healthy practices and technologies, as well as diversified and low-impact renewable sources of energy' (Art. 413), which 'conserve and restore the cycles of energy and make it possible to have living conditions marked by dignity' (Art. 408). To this end, the 2013-2017 Program of Government stipulates that the priorities of the 'productive transformation under an eco-efficient model' centre on the 'sustainable use of the Natural Heritage and its natural resources, the insertion of environmentally clean technologies, the application of energy efficiency and a greater share of renewable energies, as well as pollution prevention, control and mitigation and sustainable production, consumption and post-consumption' (Movimiento Alianza PAIS [2012] quoted in the National Plan for Good Living, p. 70).

To sum up, both the National Plan for Good Living and the Constitution of the Republic of Ecuador give explicit policy support to the transformation of the productive and energy matrix towards a post-fossil fuel economy powered by renewable energy sources. Taking the policies of the National Plan and the Constitution as its starting point, the next section of the policy paper focuses on models of transformation of the Ecuadorian energy matrix which thrive on the open knowledge commons and sustainable, appropriate technologies.

Ecuadorian policy recommendations

Our case studies from Greece and Nepal have demonstrated the potential of distributed energy models – both their economic and environmental sustainability. Consequently, we propose that public policies be developed in support of the scaling up of distributed energy projects and infrastructures. In the context of these policies, it is crucial that emphasis is given to the enabling conditions of distributed energy models such as the distribution (democratisation) of the means of energy generation, the communal management of technical infrastructures, the diffusion of the relevant knowledge that enables users to become more actively engaged in energy production and the use of open source technologies. As a first step in that direction, we propose:

  • the setting up of a pilot project based on the use of a microgrid for the electrification of a rural community in Ecuador, including households, training facilities and micro-factories for the manufacturing of open source farm machines. More specifically, the main outlines of such a project are as follows:
Demo project: A Community Microgrid for Rural Electrification from Renewable Energy Sources

The microgrid topology can be used either in off-grid or grid connected applications. In a typical off-grid application all the energy needed to power the consumer loads is provided from renewable energy sources while the battery bank is charged in order to store sufficient energy for periods when the consumed energy will be greater than that produced. In the grid connected case, the microgrid operates in a self-consumption mode where the energy transactions with the grid are minimized. In this case the microgrid power management system intends to minimize the amount of power taken from the grid, thus resulting in a high percentage of the power being provided from renewable energy sources, but not 100%. Consequently, the battery bank of the microgrid can be of less capacity since the grid itself acts as a means of energy storage.

Fig. 7: A rural microgrid (Source: www.sma.de)

  • Electrification of rural household facilities

A microgrid can be used in a typical rural village of 20 households in the global South. The loads considered for each household are shown in Appendix 1, along with their daily hours of usage. Where possible, communal spaces for refrigeration and laundry can be used in order to reduce the total cost of individually purchased refrigeration and laundry equipment as well as their overall power and energy consumption. The same goes for multimedia equipment and communications, where communal home cinema and internet spaces will be more cost and energy effective. For the communal refrigeration, laundry, multimedia and communication loads, see Appendix 1.

  • Electrification of manufacturing facilities for open source hardware agricultural machines

In addition to providing electricity for households and refrigeration, laundry, multimedia and communication services, a microgrid based on renewable energy sources can provide the power and energy to operate workshop facilities for the local manufacturing of open-source agricultural machines, such as those prototyped by the Open Source Ecology project, which can assist in the everyday life of rural families. The loads considered for such a workshop are shown in Appendix 1 along with their daily hours of usage.

Fig. 8: Lifetrac from Open Source Ecology (Source: http://www.opensourceecology.org)

  • Electrification of educational-training facilities

Educational facilities can assist in the wider dissemination of the microgrid electrification unit and in the production of open-source farm machines. Such educational facilities can also be used by the children of the local community. The loads considered for the educational facilities are shown in Appendix 1 along with their daily hours of usage.

Dimensioning of the microgrid system

Depending on the available renewable energy sources, a hybrid system solution will be adopted, as analysed in Appendix 1. A cost estimation of such a microgrid system based on a solar solution would amount up to 66,500 Euros, using a hybrid wind/solar solution up to 50,000 Euros and using a pico hydroelectric solution with a battery bank up to 34,500 Euros.

Appendix 1

Table 2: Consumer loads in a rural household

According to Table 2, a total of 2.7kW of instantaneous power will be required for 20 households, 85% of which will probably be needed in reality and a total of 10.8 kWh of electrical energy will be required for the consumer loads in all rural households on a daily basis.

Table 3: Consumer loads in communal spaces

According to Table 3, a total of 4.1kW of instantaneous power will be required for communal spaces, 85% of which will probably be needed in reality, and a total of 11.7kWh of electrical energy will be required for the consumer loads in communal spaces on a daily basis. In total 5.9kW of instantaneous power will be needed and a total of 22.5kWh of electrical energy.

Table 4: Loads for manufacturing facilities of open source agricultural machines

According to Table 4, a total of 13.8kW of instantaneous power will be required for the workshop, 85% of which will probably be needed in reality, and a total of 19.5kWh of electrical energy will be required for the workshop on a daily basis.

Table 5: Loads for educational/training facilities

According to Table 5, a total of 0.95kW of instantaneous power will be required for the educational/training facility, 85% of which will probably be needed in reality, and a total of 2.5kWh of electrical energy will be required for the educational/training facility on a daily basis.

Depending on the available renewable energy sources, a hybrid system solution will be adopted. Considering the off-grid case and if only solar energy is used, then a total of 18kW of solar panels will have to be installed, possibly in three rooftops where on each roof 6kW of solar panel will be installed, and then each set will be connected through a 6kW inverter to the AC grid. In the case that running water is available throughout the year with an adequate head and flow, then a run-off-river pico hydroelectric plant could be installed with maximum power of 2kW. In the case of a good wind resource (at least 4-5m/s annual mean wind speed), a hybrid wind and solar system could be designed where the solar panels would be reduced to 9kW with two 5kW inverters to connect to the grid and two 4.2m diameter small wind turbines would be installed and connected to the AC bus with inverters and diversion loads.

In the case of an off-grid system based exclusively on solar energy, the flooded lead-acid battery bank will need to be able to store a usable capacity of 44.5 kWh, which will typically imply an overall capacity of 133kWh for a daily depth of discharge of 30%, thus resulting in a typical battery life of ten years. In a 48VDC system, this will imply 48 2V batteries in two parallel branches of 24 each and of 1350Ah capacity each. In the case of the off-grid hybrid solar and wind system, the battery capacity could be reduced by 20% because the wind turbines could be operating during nighttime. In the case of a pico hydroelectric system, the battery bank could be reduced by 50% or even not used at all.

In the case of a grid-connected system with self-consumption, the total installed capacity of renewable energy sources as well as the storage capacity of the battery bank can be reduced, since any excess energy will be sold to the grid and any energy required will be bought from the grid, thus reducing the total cost of the system significantly, though the dependency on fossil fuels will be increased.


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  1. The present work benefited from the input and comments of prof. Nikos Hatziargyriou (SmartRUE research group of NTUA) who provided valuable guidelines during the writing of this paper.
  2. In the energy trade markets, the fact that electricity is a homogeneous product i.e. competing services can not offer really different 'packages' as in telecommunications, forcing companies mainly to competition through marketing and advertising, leads to additional costs upon consumers and to some extent cancels the supposed benefits of adopting competitive frameworks. Competition in energy trade markets around the world have not led to reduction of prices or improvements in the quality of the product (electricity) for the consumer, which should be in principle the main focus and result of this process. Indeed, in order to create open energy markets today, increased prices for small consumers are required.
  3. For a more extensive development of these critiques, see Rogers (2010) and Wallis (2010).
  4. The evolution of electricity grids is referred to as smart grids. According to the Smart Grids European Technology Platform (2006), a smart grid is an electricity network that can intelligently integrate the actions of all users connected to it – generators, consumers and those that assume both roles – in order to efficiently deliver sustainable, economic and secure electricity supplies.
  5. The recent handbook by Hatziargyriou (2014) examines the operation of microgrids - their control concepts and advanced architectures including multi-microgrids - and includes a broad overview of successful pilot microgrids in Europe, USA, Japan, China and Chile with centralized or decentralized control architecture. Cost data and different market models can also be found in the book.
  6. Designed and implemented by the Athens-based Centre for Renewable Energy Sources and Saving (CRES), the Kassel University and SMA, the system comprises 10KW of photovoltaic generators, a battery bank and a diesel genset, which are coordinated by intelligent load controllers, installed and designed by the National Technical University of Athens.
  7. Alternative Energy Promotion Centre, Government of Nepal Ministry of Science, Technology & Environment. Retrieved from http://www.aepc.gov.np/?option=statistics&page=substatistics&mid=6&sub_id=50&id=1
  8. Nepal Micro Hydropower Development Association: http://www.microhydro.org.np
  9. Practical Action (undated) Up-scaling Micro Hydro: a success story? Retrieved from http://practicalaction.org/docs/energy/microhydro_scaling_up.pdf
  10. URL: <http://scoraigwind.co.uk>
  11. Solar-Mad (www.solarmad-nrj.com) in Madagascar, Green Step (www.green-step.org) in Cameroon, Wind Aid (www.windaid.org) in Peru, the Clean Energy Initiative (www.tcei.info) in Mozambique, ÉolSénégal (www.eolsenegal.sn) in Senegal, COMET‐ME (www.comet-me.org) in Palestine and I-Love-Windpower (www.i-love-windpower.com) in Mali and Tanzania.
  12. V3 (www.v3power.co.uk) in the UK, Otherpower (www.otherpower.com) in the US, Tripalium www.tripalium.org in France, Nea Guinea (www.neaguinea.org) in Greece and ESCANDA www.escanda.org in Spain
  13. URL: <http://windempowerment.org>
  14. URL: <http://www.h-hydro.com>
  15. See Practical Action's (2014) review of existing data on the cost of adoption of distributed energy systems based on the deployment of small-scale hydropower technologies in developing countries.
  16. For page citations and quotes, we have used the english version of the National Plan for Good Living 2013-2017.