A truth of modern day infrastructure is that many people cannot access large scale, amenity providing systems due to their remote living locations, requiring independent, off-grid systems to meet their needs. Think of a remote farmhouse in the far reaches of the Scottish highlands, it is not feasible to connect this property to a national network. The most common form of self-sufficiency can be seen in domestic power generation, when people use small scale generators to produce their own electricity. However this can extend to other amenities such as sourcing water from local sources or natural gas production from composting setups. Modern life increasingly relies on being connected to the internet for work, hobbies or communicating with friends and family. This has led to the internet being considered an amenity in itself. Historically, due to its reliance on a solid state cable system, the internet has been a difficult amenity for off grid systems to acquire reliably and with suitable speed and bandwidth.
Alternative for remote areas
However, as of recently, this has begun to change with the commercialisation of new technology which uses satellites to relay internet signals. The service is named Starlink and is provided by the company SpaceX, an aerospace company in the US. Internet signals in the form of radio waves are sent from the internet user on the ground and bounced off a satellite in Earth’s orbit to be received by an Internet Service Provider (ISP). The service only requires a small satellite dish be installed on the property and provides average download speeds of 100 to 200 Mbps and upload speeds of 30 Mbps, with a latency of 20 ms (on par with ground based systems).
This provides a promising alternative source of internet accessibility currently boasting 145,000 active users with ‘hundreds of thousands waiting to try it out’. Unfortunately, due to current chip shortages, manufacturing the equipment to provide the service at scale has not been possible leading to many potential users waiting for their service to start. The current focus has been on customers who live in the remote areas rather than those in densely populated areas such as major cities as these people can benefit more from the service, while those in cities can access similar services for half the price.
Electricity network - Microgrid
So now we see the technology to connect those in remote areas is possible. How would one go about setting up a system capable of consistent internet coverage? Several customer reviews highlighted that the starlink system rarely experiences outages in service so the only obstacles to a constant access to the internet are the weather and having a constant source of power available. The first problem is solved by the design of the satellite dish which includes its own heater to prevent issues with freezing and the satellite dish being obstructed by snow.
The second problem is a little more tricky. As we are looking at off-grid systems due to the remoteness of the users, the starlink system cannot rely on a constant source of power from the grid, the electricity must be locally sourced via a local Microgrid. A Microgrid is a small-scale electricity network which connects a supply of electricity, usually generated by distributed sources such as wind turbines or photovoltaics, to an electricity consumer such as a home or a small industrial facility. Although Microgrids are not limited to only producing power through renewables, renewable sources are generally favoured over other sources for their cleanliness, low running costs and the difficulty and expense of transporting fuels to remote areas.
A reliable supply of electricity is needed for the Starlink system to constantly operate. Unfortunately, the wind is not always blowing and the sun is not always shining and as a result renewable power sources are unlikely to provide a constant supply. This is where batteries come in! A method of storing electricity is required so that the electricity generated during ideal weather conditions can be constantly available to power the Starlink system. Currently, chemical batteries such as Lithium Ion batteries are the most popular form of energy storage and can easily be integrated into an off-grid system to smooth out peaks of power generation.
It is generally a good idea for remote Microgrid systems of this sort to contain a number of energy sources such as wind turbines and solar photovoltaic systems. This diversifies the potential energy production and helps to ensure that the power that is being produced is as constant as possible without major interruptions. If the system only contained a photovoltaic panel and the sun stopped shining but there was plenty of wind, no electricity would be generated. And in the case of a system with only a wind turbine no electricity would be generated if there was no wind but lots of potential solar power could go to waste! A good example of such a wind turbine is the TESUP Atlas4.0 which generates lots of power with only a small profile!
The concept of energy generation diversification can also justify the need for an internal combustion engine generator to ensure that, even with terrible weather conditions, crucial electricity can be generated to keep essential life supporting systems and amenities such as water, heating and communication (such as internet) running continuously. In the future these generators could utilise hydrogen fuel cells to be entirely clean only producing water as a by-product. For the moment, until hydrogen powered generators are developed further this need is met by a diesel or petrol fuelled generator.
So as you can see, the future (and indeed the present) is looking bright for those living in remote areas. Advances in technology such as satellite based internet and domestic scale renewable energy generators have made it entirely possible to live in a very remote region without compromising the basic necessities of a comfortable life. A dependable, good quality internet connection is entirely possible with commercially available equipment: a satellite dish, a diverse renewable energy generation system (photovoltaic panels, wind turbines) and a robust electricity storage system. Microgrids like this one are certainly an interesting topic and are worth a look into!