March 10, 2022

A lesson from the developing world

What can we learn from places like Nepal about demand response and microgrids? Vivek Bhandari investigates.

As we move into an era where energy is thought of in a distributed rather than a centralised way, there are a huge array of changes to both lifestyle and infrastructure to contemplate.

One of these areas is demand response (DR) or load shifting; the process by which consumers help the grid to stabilise by reducing the amount of power they are drawing at critical moments during the day.

Although the concept is relatively new in the prosperous West, you could argue that DR has been around for a very long time in the developing world.

In fact, the notion of having continuous power to rely on is something of a luxury than a rarity in many parts; which is why the close examination of the electricity habits of developing countries can offer us quite a few insights into how you live with power when it isn’t abundant, cheap, continuous and dependable.

For example, in India, it’s very typical for the minister of energy to issue a statement, not unlike a traffic report in the west, with an exhortation to avoid a certain motorway. Only this is about avoiding the use of electricity:

“Currently Maharashtra is facing a shortage of 3000 MW. I urge citizens to use electricity very cautiously between peak hours of six to ten in the morning and evening”.

If people do comply, they can collectively avoid a power cut. If they don’t comply then they’ll have one anyway, so the incentive is clear. 

What might surprise us in the West is that the ministers' requests generally do get met, and people adjust their lives accordingly.

Geeta, a software developer, does all her ironing at home exclusively during the non-peak hours. She could buy an electric oven but because mealtimes often coincide with a ministry request for electrical restraint, she has opted for a gas cylinder and a gas oven instead.

That doesn’t mean she’s completely on top of the intermittent supply that Maharastra faces. At one time an abrupt power cut caused her to lose the majority of her Master’s thesis that she’d been writing. The file corrupted, she was forced to rewrite much of it from scratch.

Above: A girl sits in a city-safari in Nepal.

After that experience, she decided to do most of her work at the university where they had diesel batteries and solar to guarantee an uninterrupted supply.

In Ghana, Mensah is an accountant and has the financial means to guarantee his own supply. He has invested in solar and battery to overcome the issue of irregular and unpredictable outages. For him, it’s about his favourite TV shows and air conditioning and finds the investment well worth it for his quality of life.

Sometimes the interruptions aren’t created by an unstable grid but by a major natural event, like a hurricane, and the solution here is often to create a microgrid.

The controversial Guantanamo Bay prison is situated in Cuba and the US navy installed a solar and battery microgrid on top of existing generating assets to guarantee a more reliable supply. The last thing anyone wants is the lights going out in a prison.

Microgrids are now not only cheaper to build than just a few years ago but they are far more weather resilient and cheaper to run in places where shipping in diesel always comes at a premium. 

Of the many developing countries around the world, perhaps the one with some of the most irregular electricity is Nepal. 

Kamruddin is a ‘city-safari’, a small public electric vehicle driver from Nepal. He charges his vehicle at night, only at designated charging centres. The scheme makes a lot of sense for him because he saves on buying expensive infrastructure and gets his battery serviced properly as part of the package, so it lasts longer. 

“I don't mind going to the charging centre near Rani (a suburb in eastern Nepal) or elsewhere. The incentives provided by the charging centres is what matters to me”.

Above: a city-safari in Nepal.

What these examples show is that solutions to grid problems in these countries emerge organically. There is a sacrifice of convenience and it becomes clear that local centres become more important. Likely sites include: universities with batteries and solar, charging centres and prisons. Essentially anywhere there is an aggregation of people and availability of investment.

These illustrations also tell us that it's often when the central system fails, that people look to solve their own problems in the most efficient way possible. So perhaps the best lesson from the developing world is that a certain amount of disintegration inevitably gives rise to the emergence of new networks.


Dr Vivek Bhandari is the Head of Market Optimisation and Product Owner at Powerledger. By creating marketplaces to keep customers connected to the grid and empowering them to control their energy future, Powerledger removes the barriers to achieve a decentralised, digitalised, decarbonised and democratised future.

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