Renewable Growth Comes Off the Grid

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- We usually think of solar or wind power as feeding into the electrical grid, comparing the costs, and considering subsidies aimed at equalizing them.

But the biggest opportunities in the near term may lie off the grid, where there is no competition.

In the past I thought of this in terms of small solar mats charging cellphones in Africa, as BuildAfrica explains , bringing millions into the world economy. But it turns out there are unexpected markets for larger projects.

Miners working in remote regions have few alternatives to renewable power. Clean Technica reported in September that miners like to put solar systems into remote locations so the mining companies can own their own power systems.

We're not just talking about solar power, either.

Rio Tinto ( RIO) has erected four large windmills near its Diavik diamond mine in the Arctic, figuring that if the $30 million project just reduces expensive diesel deliveries the expense is worthwhile. Louise Downing wrote about the project for Bloomberg adding that Barrick Gold ( ABX) is also cutting its diesel costs 20% by erecting wind turbines near its facilities in Argentina.

This trend within the industry isn't being pushed by regulators. It works on the bottom line. Just as important, systems that work in the -40 degree cold of the Arctic or at the 13,000 foot level of the Andes are rugged enough for all locations. They prove the concept of scaled renewable power systems that are safe and increasingly cost-effective.

The off-grid market is helping start-up Altaeros Energy of Boston put its flying turbines into Alaska. As the Alaska Dispatch reports , these turbines, mounted inside wheel-shaped balloons, can go up to 1,000 feet up, where the winds are fastest, and supplement a village's power for less than fossil-fuel alternatives.

The strangest use of renewable power has to be in the oil patch itself. Progress Solar Solutions has been pitching drillers for years on its solar-powered light systems that let rigs work through the night, and is now adding wind to the mix.

Critics are going to be quick to ask, what happens when the sun goes down or the winds don't blow? Hybrid energy solutions like those of Planetary Power are becoming a standard. These combine a solar or wind installation with back-up diesel power. It's no longer about replacing diesel, but when you're in a remote location supplementing diesel can be highly profitable.

Renewables can also fill the gap when the grid goes down. Companies that usually sell solar systems to small businesses and homes, like Consolidated Power of Albuquerque, N.M., jumped into the breach after Hurricane Sandy and brought solar generators to affected areas, writes GreenTech Media . There are 10 Kw generators for powering phones and hand tools, and 20 Kw generators for powering cell towers.

The story reminds me of what happened in communications after Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. WiFi operators were able to get the data flowing much, much faster than the phone company was able to.

The International Renewable Energy Agency, based in Abu Dhabi, has run the numbers and concluded renewables should be the default option for providing power beyond the reach of current electrical grids. Solar is more flexible, biomass is more available and wind is more stable than running new wires.

Where there are no wires, or where the wires have gone down, the growth ceiling for renewable energy is now unlimited. When these re-sellers grow up they will make smart investments.

At the time of publication the author had no position in any of the stocks mentioned.

This article was written by an independent contributor, separate from TheStreet's regular news coverage.