Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

Africa leaping off-grid

By Santiago Miret

Sub-Saharan Africa is one of the least developed areas in the world. According to the World Bank, of the approximately 940 million people living in the region, roughly 600 million lack access to electricity. Moreover, the number of people in Sub-Saharan Africa without electricity has actually been increasing as the population growth has outpaced the rate of electrification.

Lack of access to electricity greatly limits the development prospects of these, largely rural, Africans, as they are greatly limited in their performance of basic tasks, such as reading at night. Furthermore, communication with the outside world is heavily restrained, as there is limited access to telecommunications and the Internet.

To meet their basic energy needs, many Africans then resort to primitive sources of energy, such as kerosene lamps or burning of biomass, that are both expensive and environmentally damaging. Even those primitive energy sources can be hard to come by, with some rural women in Tanzania walking 5-10 km a day to obtain 30 kg of firewood. The consequences of this underdeveloped energy infrastructure therefore include not only a loss of developmental opportunity, but also a higher cost for basic needs.

[caption id="attachment_6455" align="alignright" width="459"]http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Charging_mobile_phones_and_light_bulbs_is_a_business_inside_UN_House,_Juba_(12317290513).jpg Charging a cell phone in Africa could be 100x more expensive than in developed countries. (Image: Oxfam East Africa, Wikimedia Commons)[/caption]

Grid expansion in rural Africa, where the population density is only five people per square kilometer, has been occurring very slowly. To make matters worse, in addition to poor reliability and connectivity, grid electricity is often too expensive for Africans to afford. In sparsely populated countries, such as Mali, grid expansion can cost up $19,000 USD per kilometer, which is too expensive for African consumers to afford and African governments to subsidize.

Azuri Technologies, a UK based company providing cell-phone charging solutions in rural Africa, estimates that a single cell-phone charge in Africa, which costs about 20 cents, is about 100 times more expensive than in developed countries. This dire situation of poor electricity infrastructure, however, may have a silver lining, as it has opened the door for new off-grid energy innovations to potentially circumvent current energy technologies in developing countries.

Similar to how cell phones leapfrogged the development of a telecommunications grid in Africa, the lack of energy infrastructure in Sub-Saharan Africa has enabled the development of a new energy landscape that is entirely based on off-grid renewable energy technologies. Many of the most successful such systems have been solar modules that store energy in a small battery.

Solar energy is particularly favorable for rural Africa, given that the continent has one of the highest solar irradiances in the worlds. Many African countries receive 325 days of bright sunlight per year, which gives a steady supply for solar powered systems. Furthermore, unlike diesel and kerosene that require repeated supplying of fuel, solar modules only have to be transported to their place of use once.

The main obstacle for solar power is the high initial cost of the systems. These high initial costs of renewable energy sources coupled with the low incomes of people in Sub-Saharan Africa has led companies to explore novel financing schemes. UK-based Azuri Technologies, BBOXX, and San Francisco-based Fenix International are examples of companies that have been able to change the business model of renewable energy to a“pay-as-you-go” system resembling the pricing scheme of traditional grid. This model is structured in a way that allows the user to pay for the system over a longer period of time, such as 18 months, thereby decreasing the initial investment required to obtain such a system.

The introduction of these small energy modules has not only enabled many Africans to meet their basic energy needs using solar power, but it has created numerous opportunities for entrepreneurs as well. Enterprising individuals who have used their solar modules to power cell phone charging businesses are a great example of how these systems can spur economic development. Moreover, given the importance of wireless communication to the vitality of rural Africa, the increased availability of charging for cell phones then catalyzes further business development across many previously unconnected areas.

Even though solar power is the most promising renewable energy technology for Africa, there are various other promising sources available for renewable energy development. There are massive potential sources available for hydropower in the Ethiopia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Furthermore, most of West Africa has abundant sources for wind power. There are even significant geothermal power sources in many East African countries.

Yet many of the above renewable energy technologies, especially hydropower and geothermal power, require grid infrastructure to function properly. The high cost of grid expansion, and the substantial investments required in building these types of power plants, makes it very unlikely that these types of renewable energies will be integrated without outside financial support.

Wind power could be an alternative to solar-powered distributed generation, but wind turbines are more difficult to build in remote areas, and require higher maintenance efforts during their use. This is different from solar systems, which are already being sold in plug-and-play systems that are easy to use.

One significant disadvantage of wind and solar are their irregular energy generation patterns that can make it difficult to operate larger devices, such as fridges or small machinery. Energ- storage technologies, such as batteries, are often used to address this problem for wind and solar, but storage then adds further cost and complexities to the systems. This can cause significant maintenance problems in larger off-grid systems that cannot fit into small ready-to-use modules given that technical support will be difficult to obtain in these very remote areas.

Given that problem, another promising off-grid alternative is micro-scale hydropower. Even though the initial micro-hydro system may be more difficult to install, after the system has been built, a micro-hydro can provide a steady supply of energy to a remote community. The steady, reliable supply of energy constitutes a significant advantage over solar and wind power as it provides a base load of energy. Since many communities are located near some type of water, micro-hydro could fill a different type of energy than the already successful solar modules.

This exciting development of off-grid renewable energy technologies in rural Africa is not only catalyzing economic development for disadvantaged populations, but it may also foreshadow how the energy system of the future will look. Constructing an electricity grid is an expensive and complex operation that requires the cooperation of many different entities, while small off-grid energy systems have proven to be easy to use and deploy. As these systems continue to develop they will be able to meet increasingly greater energy needs, such as enabling the use of refrigerators, and spur increasingly complex types of economic development.

Developed countries are also discussing decentralization of the electricity grid as renewable-energy sources, combined with energy storage systems, begin to make distributed generation a feasible option. Africa’s leapfrogging of the traditional energy infrastructure may just provide the insights we need to redesign the current grid into a decentralized, renewable energy based energy system.

Cross-posted from the Stanford Energy Journal.