“Utility in a Box” — a mini-grid solution for scaling last-mile connectivity

Prototypes of an integrated, standardized “Utility in a Box” (UiB) are being deployed in rural India starting this month, with the goal of significantly reducing the cost of mini-grid systems and contributing more significantly to India’s goal of national electrification by 2019.

Sanjay Khazanchi, chief executive of ITT’s Access to Electricity program in India (credit: ITT)

Designed by the Institute for Transformative Technologies (ITT) with financial support of The Rockefeller Foundation, plans are for the modular UiB concept to be tested by three private sector ESCOs — TARA Urja, Mlinda and OMC Power.

Sanjay Khazanchi, chief executive of ITT’s Access to Electricity program in India, said field trials of the UiBs will roll out between June and October, with performance being closely monitored. The first prototype has already been built and will be deployed in selected villages with a profile of around 200 households/commercial loads and 10–12 micro-enterprises.

The UiB mini-grids will have complete metering and load management system along with a full revenue management system with features like on-bill financing and mobile money gateway integration. All customer and revenue operations can be remotely monitored and controlled. ITT will also test new storage solutions and ultra-efficient appliances.

“We want to make mini-grids modular and easy to install, because every developer today starts from scratch and builds its own design,” Khazanchi told Power for All. “This is a 10kw model that can be scaled as demand increases and will provide a well-architected, standard approach for last-mile power plants.”

Currently, construction of mini-grids involves procurement of a broad range of non-standard and sub-standard components from a number of vendors who have no incentive to ensure their components work well with others. This increases the overall cost of the system, while also reducing performance.

ITT “Utility in a Box” components (credit: ITT)

The UiB concept will reduce the overall cost of the mini-grids, improve ease of installation, and also improve performance, Khazanchi said. India’s government is supportive of mini-grids (it has set a target of 10,000 in five years), but it needs to see more evidence that they can scale on a sustainable basis.

A key to success will also be getting consumers to adopt ultra-efficient appliances like fans, refrigerators and TVs, and making sure that the necessary products are available through quality-assured partners.

“We expect that these appliances will be available with on-bill financing, and there is good indication on the ground that people will adopt them,” Khazanchi said.

ITT “Utility in a Box” 10 KW Array (credit: ITT))