“Solutions for Africa’s electrification challenges are abundant – it is selecting the most suitable technologies and modifying these for the continent’s unique conditions that will bring about significant progress,” states Phil Dingle, marketing director at Lucy Electric.
The importance of increasing electrification rates across Africa to connect over 600 million people to a reliable, secure and affordable source of power is the remit of governments; however, this policy driven landscape is under pressure from external developments in energy technology and services.
Policymakers are witnessing an energy revolution where off-grid and mini-grid power generation is no longer a short-term fix, but rather a permanent fixture in any country’s energy planning landscape. This trend is being driven by new and cheaper technologies, especially in the renewable energy industry, which is being made ever-more attractive when coupled with affordable energy storage.
Significantly, it is rural electrification through off-grid and mini-grid initiatives that is bringing life-changing developments to communities, some of which have only recently acquired power for the first time.
However, the growth of renewable and clean power resources is putting a strain on national grids, which has led to many professionals now set on future proofing the electricity network through structural design. The overwhelming challenge they have set out to solve is on the transmission side of the energy industry where from the stage of concept to being operational “it takes approximately eight years for a transmission line project to be commissioned, which in terms of connecting 600 million people is a long time to wait and that in itself is not a solution,” says Dingle.
A potential solution lies in the development of mini-grids and “especially for people who are located in isolated and outlying areas” the various mini-grid designs can be commissioned within 12 months of concept. The challenge then transitions to whether the project “remains as a mini-grid or at some point is integrated with the national grid,” states Dingle.
Delays are non-negotiable for Africa’s energy revolution
The greatest and most encouraging aspect of connecting communities to power is the knock-on economic value it delivers. “By connecting people to electricity, you are also creating the potential for economic wealth, which translates in the form of sustainable jobs,” explains Dingle, alluding to the African Utility Week keynote address where South Africa’s Minister of Energy, Jeff Radebe, spoke of the need to link the National Development Plan to the training of college and university students in order to create the skills that are able to deliver the clean energy future that connects the 600 million people in Africa. “If this isn’t achieved – capturing the benefit of job creation – then that’s only half the job done,” emphasised Lucy Electric’s marketing director.
There are a number of projects that have been completed in countries such as Kenya and Tanzania where the minigrid has been commissioned in isolation of the national grid and grid support.
One of the overarching challenges is the issue of permits, which regulate how developers set up the mini-grid. During the African Utility Week energy revolution session, a guest speaker referenced having to source 36 different permits to cover all the governmental elements for one mini-grid project.
“There is logic to each process; however, it’s still a huge bureaucratic hurdle,” exclaims Dingle, adding: “Where a developer is considering a volume of projects, there should be a streamlined process to enable and encourage people to do it.” Currently, there are companies that are committed to this development and are making headway.
“It’s a viable business model but needs to be stimulated so that it attains aggressive growth,” stresses Dingle.
Keeping abreast of the utility business model
The perception that renewable energy technologies are a threat to the utility business model is far outweighed by its ability to quickly and affordably increase access to electricity in many hard-to reach areas.
Admittedly, these technologies are becoming accessible to the grid connected customer base as well, which is impacting the established network model – and utilities must adapt.
Traditionally networks were designed to deliver electricity along a linear supply chain with predictable customer demand and a balanced system. This is no longer the case and electricity companies are now forced to change the way they monitor and manage networks to maintain quality and security of supply for customers.
“The debate is now around what the future utility will look like,” states Dingle, cautioning that the African utility model has to change to enable the injection of independently produced power.
This presents an opportunity to create an enabling business model, such as in Europe “where this model is widely accepted and possible because the infrastructure is already in place”.
Instead of diversifying the utility business models as they have done in the US and the UK, Africa’s energy utilities could consider centralising their efforts so that “the emphasis is only on managing consumers’ behaviour”.
As discussed at the African Utility Week conference, where Lucy Electric was the exclusive Diamond Sponsor, the continent is eager to shift from fossil fuels to renewables. This is evident from an agreement reached in December 2015 whereby African countries launched the Africa Renewable Energy Initiative (AREI) to give all Africans access to energy that is mostly based on renewable sources by 2030. ESI
About the company
Lucy Electric is a leader in secondary power distribution solutions with over 100 years’ industry experience. Specialising in high-performance medium voltage switchgear for utility, industrial and commercial applications, we enable the safe and reliable distribution of energy to homes and businesses worldwide.