Think about it: just two decades ago, many African towns were barely accessible because of the lack of telephone line infrastructure to key development areas. Today, cellular technology has allowed communications to leapfrog telephone line technology and provide communications without expensive, centralised infrastructure.
A similar argument can be made about electricity. Now that both solar PV and battery costs have reduced significantly, microgrid technology promises to be an opportunity for Africa to leapfrog traditional grid-based electricity – a typically fossil-fuel heavy, centralised mode of providing power.
Africa is a uniquely positioned continent, because of its widely-dispersed nodes of development over large geographic areas. As a result of this, the costs of building electrical infrastructure over geographically large areas have typically inhibited electrification, leaving large parts of African countries without electricity – in fact, Africa remains the least electrified continent in the world with only 35% of the continent having access to electricity.
Microgrid technology is inherently decentralised, as it operates as a smart grid on its own, smaller scale, often using wireless technology. A cornerstone of microgrid technology is solar PV and batteries, since they are deployable in decentralised areas and do not require massive infrastructure to function. Combined, microgrids would seem to carry immense potential for Africa.
Despite this, a report published on PV magazine found that only 1% of electricity investment in the 20 least electrified countries was spent on decentralised energy production, despite at least 40% of electrification being suitable for microgrid deployment in these countries. This presents a massive opportunity – both for the unelectrified communities, as well as for electricity developers in Africa. Microgrids could be a sustainable – and affordable – solution for energy access in Africa.
But are microgrids proven to work? Take an example of Entasopia, a small village in the south of Kenya. The village, disconnected from Kenya’s national electricity grid, is supplied power by a small solar PV microgrid. This microgrid enables 60 homes, small businesses, and even a petrol station to run, making the area a hive of economic activity and enabling growth even in the remote area. With this technology, schools and clinics can access electricity and businesses can sprout up, enabling economic empowerment in previously isolated areas.
The Robben Island solar PV microgrid is also a great example of converting an existing diesel generation system to a smart PV and battery coupled microgrid. Even though the island was already supplied by diesel generators, the cost of diesel meant that the addition of solar PV and batteries still made perfect business sense – it’ll pay itself back in about 5 years. The island’s activities – including the bustling harbour and desalination plant – are now powered almost entirely by clean energy, and the ecologically sensitive island is no longer affected by the diesel and noise emissions from the generators.
The fact that microgrids make business sense not only for completely disconnected communities but also for those with existing, fossil-heavy grids (such as Robben Island) show demonstrable effectiveness for further applications – such as mining. Mining activities can now rely on PV and battery coupled microgrids, where previously they relied on diesel generation. These microgrids provide a solution that can not only save mining operations money, but also reduce the environmental impact of the mining activity.
SOLA Future Energy is a proudly African company, and we believe in the potential that affordable, clean energy can bring for the whole continent. Despite its historically slower economic growth, we believe that Africa is in a unique position now, particularly because of the way in which new technologies can assist the continent to spur development. Get in touch with us to find out how microgrids could assist your business or community.