By microrenewables, we mean small-scale renewables, whose outputs are at kilowatt instead of megawatt levels. These include solar PV systems on home and building rooftops, microhydro facilities, small wind turbines, small biogas digesters, and other micro-systems. As a rough guide, we can use the government limit of 100 kilowatts and below.
The term derives from “microcomputers”, “microprocessors”, and “microcontrollers”. These represent the “micro” paradigm in the information industries, which overthrew the older “mainframe” paradigm that used to dominate the computer industry.
The mainframe paradigm involved going after economies of scale in size by building larger and more powerful computers and super-computers. The idea was to make computing cheaper and more affordable through such economies of scale. We call this the giantist mindset.
It turned out that the micro paradigm could attain better economies of scale than the mainframe paradigm. Computers became smaller instead of bigger, until these were so small that they could be put on a single microchip. Thus, a different economy of scale took over—the economies of scale in quantity or volume. Made in the millions, microprocessors and microcontrollers had become so cheap that they became universal building blocks of industries and the economy. They gave birth to the Internet, the World Wide Web, as well as to smartphones. This completely changed not only the computer industry, but the entire economy as well. The micro paradigm thus became a deep gamechanger.
The same thing happened when we shifted from mainframe-based landlines to micro-based cellphones.
The energy sector is still mired in “mainframe” thinking—big fossil-fuelled power plants, mega dams, giant wind turbines, and so on. Few renewable technologies have shifted to the “micro” paradigm.
Rooftop solar is one such technology. By going micro (a typical solar panel consists of 60 to 72 solar cells), solar PV technologies are able to take advantage of economies of scale in quantity. Thus for nearly four decades now, solar panels and their associated electronics have been continually declining in prices. Today, they are the cheapest source of electricity. This realization is now diffusing gradually into the consciousness of consumers. Thus, the spread of rooftop solar is now increasingly market-driven.
The rooftop solar industry is today in a period similar to the period when cellphones were first being introduced into the market. Soon after texting (the cellphone’s “killer app”) was introduced, consumers started shifting in droves to cellphones. Today, most of us use cellphones or have graduated to smartphones. Many have given up their landlines.
To move forward, the rooftop solar industry today needs two or more major suppliers in every regional capital, and a year or so later, in every provincial capital.
The pent-up demand for rooftop solar is driven by unreliable electric coop service, long and frequent brownouts, and high electricity rates. Many are ready to go solar, but are held back by the lack of reliable local suppliers who can offer competitive instead of monopolistic prices. The solar supplier that establishes regional branches as soon as possible will gain an early foothold in this potentially huge market.
Other microrenewable technologies in the wind, hydro and biomass sectors have not yet reached this market-driven stage. These sectors are still mostly driven by economies of scale in size, by the giantist mindset.
This magazine is devoted to turning the micro paradigm into reality in the renewable energy industry. This will be our contribution to the ongoing energy transition to renewable electricity and the necessary social transition to a more ecological, more egalitarian society.
And we invite our readers to join us in this worthy mission by sending comments, stories and articles.