The Industrial Engineering and Logistics Research Group (EOLI) at the Polytechnic University of Catalonia (UPC) is studying the optimisation of electrification systems that use sources of renewable energy to ensure that they are adequate for autonomously supplying electricity to isolated settlements. This research is being led by Professor Laia Ferrer Martí in the framework of projects funded by the UPC 2 Cooperation for Development Centre’s national plan.
There are currently 1,200 million people in the world with no access to electricity, who are mainly concentrated in rural areas of developing countries. Electrification systems based on the use of renewable energy have been shown to be suitable for providing an autonomous electricity supply to isolated populations. They are cheaper than extending the mains electricity network and also produce electricity in a way that respects the environment and does not pollute. Specifically, the systems that could produce the best results are hybrids that combine the use of different energy sources (wind, solar, hydraulic) as well as distribution micro-networks. In order to optimise the design of these systems, we need to explore all combinations for the location of points, generation sources and micro-network distribution structures. It is also important to consider the technical, economic and social conditioners of electricity promoters and future users in order to guarantee the sustainability of these systems over time.
In this context, the EOLI group at the UPC is developing a line of research with the general purpose of optimising the design of these autonomous rural electrification systems using renewable energies through the development of multi-criteria models and tools to support decision-making. To do this, mathematical linear programming models and heuristic algorithms are to be designed and integrated in a general design methodology to enable structured decision-making that considers technical, economic and social criteria. In a complementary manner, project evaluation procedures have been developed that analyse the impact of the provision of an electricity service on the social and economic development of people and management systems to organise the operation, maintenance and technical and financial sustainability of such systems.
The research is conducted from a highly applied focus, in contact with future users and in partnership with the institutions that promote these projects, thereby guaranteeing that the solutions are efficient and sustainable over time. To date, we have been working in collaboration with Engineers Without Borders and Practical Action (Intermediate Technology Development Group), among others, and have studied real-life cases of electrification in Peru, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Cape Verde and Nepal. Work is just starting now in Mexico and Venezuela both on a project level and on a greater scale in the development of regional rural electrification plans.