US-Lead Consortium Begins Work on Mini-Grid Feasibility Study in Fiji
Backed by a U.S. Trade and Development Agency grant, the University of Arizona and other organizations are kicking off an 18-month feasibility assessment to identify 75 rural sites for solar-powered mini-grids in Fiji.
The U.S. Trade and Development Agency (USTDA) recently funded a new project to assess remote areas across Fiji as potential sites for solar-powered mini-grids paired with energy storage systems.
The Butoni Wind Farm is among Fiji’s growing network of on-shore wind installations. The facility was commissioned in 2007 and features 37 turbines supplying 10 megawatts of capacity. Image used courtesy of Energy Fiji Limited
The “Accelerating Solar Mini-Grid Deployment in Fiji” project launched this month with a $1.5 million grant from the USTDA, which oversees international economic development for the U.S. government. Arizona State University’s Laboratory for Energy and Power Solutions (LEAPS) division was tapped to lead an 18-month feasibility study that will start by assessing 300 rural communities without access to affordable and reliable electricity. This net will then be narrowed to 75 sites selected to receive $40 million in capital investments to replace diesel generators with solar + energy storage mini-grids.
Geospatial analysis is underway and will be followed by four months of in-person assessments for potential mini-grid locations across the South Pacific island nation.
Despite the similar name, mini-grids are different from microgrids, which are gaining traction in an ever-expanding global market of projects using distributed energy resources. Mini-grids are designed for off-grid deployment and can bring power to rural populations faster than traditional national grid transmission lines, which can be costly to extend to remote areas.
This application would be a fitting contribution to Fiji’s transition to renewable energy. The government aims to serve electricity to all rural communities and shift to 100% renewables by 2030. Most Fijians (around 58%) reside in urban hubs, while 42% live in rural communities—some located outside the main power grid’s service area. The country’s population totaled 929,000 people in 2022, roughly at scale with Austin, Texas.
Geospatial Planning and Impact Assessments
The Accelerating Solar Mini-Grid Deployment in Fiji consortium is headed by Fiji’s Ministry of Finance, Strategic Planning, National Development and Statistics, with additional participation from the South Korea-based intergovernmental organization Global Green Growth Institute and California-based microgrid software developer Xendee Corporation.
For its role in the project, LEAPS will conduct geospatial site planning and impact assessments on climate change patterns and develop technical and sustainable business models and approaches to ownership/operations. The team will prepare public tender documents to build, operate, and maintain the mini-grids.
LEAPS will also identify the ideal configuration and funding options for each mini-grid. The proximity of some sites could mean the facilities will get bundled into single procurements, combining community mini-grids with cell towers, health care services, or other infrastructure.
A signing ceremony in mid-May convened representatives from the U.S. Trade and Development Agency, the Global Green Growth Institute, Arizona State University, and Fiji’s government. Image used courtesy of the U.S. Department of State
LEAPS has worked on over 100 mini-grid and microgrid assessments worldwide. Nathan Johnson, LEAPS’s director and an associate engineering professor at Arizona State, said that the team’s previous work has introduced new approaches to engineering, ownership, and financing models, reducing the timeline of feasibility assessments and boosting the accuracy of results on the sizing and long-term sustainability of energy systems.
Mini-grid planning typically lasts for months and incurs high costs. In past projects, LEAPS has optimized workflows and increased accuracy via automated error-checking to cut planning costs by up to 80% and reduce assessment timelines by 90% compared to existing processes, according to its website.
LEAPS partnered with YouthMappers in 2020 to assess potential locations, distribution network layouts, and configurations for 45 mini-grids across rural villages in the West African nation of Sierra Leone. The group helped build a rapid assessment methodology using high-resolution mapping and power engineering data to plan mini-grid network architectures for asset sizing and placement, controls and dispatch, and distribution network topology. These assessments were then used to inform the projects’ levelized cost of energy (LCOE), cash flow, and payback period.
Fiji’s Renewable Energy Profile
Around 40% of Fiji’s power is generated from diesel and heavy fuel oil supplied by Singapore. According to the International Trade Administration, Fiji’s 2030 target to shift entirely to renewables will necessitate an additional 120 megawatts (MW) of clean energy. Hydropower is the main renewable resource in the country today, though four solar farm projects are underway with 5 MW of capacity each.
Energy Fiji Limited (EFL), the country’s top generator and distributor of power to over 90% of the population, has committed to transition to 90% renewable energy by 2025. It’s also working to extend its reach to more rural communities. EFL’s national grid encompasses most of the population, but 4% still lacks access to electricity.
Energy Fiji Limited’s power generation mix in 2021, as presented in its most recent annual report. (Note: “IPP” stands for independent power producers.) Image used courtesy of Energy Fiji Limited
EFL’s most recent annual report shows it generated 58.5% of its electricity from renewable power stations in 2021. Hydropower facilities claimed most of this share, while wind and solar were less than 1%. Around 35% of the total power mix was sourced from thermal power stations, and independent power producers generated 6.5%.