Image credit: Standard Microgrid

Standardisation of a quality assurance framework across an industry as diverse as micro-grids can be complex as it can impact a variety of issues including technical components, business models, financing, and policy. Success is at hand as four micro-grid developers use their projects to test a quality assurance model.

The strategic use of micro- and mini-grids is a key component of Power Africa’s roadmap to achieving 60 million new electricity connections by 2030. However, while the engineering principles for micro-grids are well established, the lack of uniform standards, coupled with quality and safety concerns, creates a false perception that they are high-risk investments.

This article originally appeared in Issue 2 2018 of our print magazine. The digital version of the full magazine can be read online or downloaded free of charge.

To address this concern, Power Africa partnered with the US Department of Energy’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) to create the Quality Assurance Framework (QAF) for mini-grids. The QAF will enable high quality and financially viable micro-grid systems to deliver power to customers who are not on a national or regional grid by providing frameworks for level of service, accountability, and performance.

Power Africa and NREL are working with four leading micro-grid developers in Africa – Standard Microgrid, Devergy, Black Star Energy, and PowerGen – to pilot the implementation of the QAF into business practices and projects. These pilots are located across sub-Saharan Africa and will lead to the development and publication of additional QAF material to advance and support the broader micro-grid community.

Power Africa is excited to be working with the developers selected for the QAF pilot projects because they are doing some of the most exciting and most innovative work on micro-grids in Africa. Each of the QAF pilot projects is focused on a slightly different technical area, but they all share the same goals of supporting the developers in a key area of interest. These projects also provide a platform for the development of additional QAF products to advance the sector.

The objective of each pilot partner is to: Students at Mugurameno Primary School celebrate their school’s new connection to the micro-grid in the Lower Zambezi Community, Zambia.

• Update the customer agreement to make it more user-friendly and so that it better represents its microgrid systems offerings, as well as to update and improve system modelling so that new customer loads can be more easily added. These efforts will be followed by additional support to help the company improve its process as it grows its business.

• Analyse customer data from installed systems to improve the community
assessment processes for microgrids. Working together with a partner university, the team will attempt to better understand what customer and community information are good predictors of power consumption; and to use historical data to identify standard customer segments.

• Update and improve the system commissioning processes and documentation. As developers are building a new micro-grid each month, standardising commissioning process and quality control will help establish a methodology to ensure continued high reliability of systems as they scale up their business.

• Expand and update specific components of the QAF by reviewing the performance data from developers’ existing systems and incorporating lessons from their projects into the QAF.

• Through these pilot projects, Power Africa and NREL will develop additional QAF products detailing recommendations and best practices around a number of key microgrid
topics. This includes customer agreements, system commissioning, community assessment, and direct current (DC) system design.

“Having implemented commissioning procedures and documentation consistent with the QAF has greatly helped to decrease system issues after project launch. Working with NREL to develop, test, and apply the QAF with Black Star Energy’s mini-grid systems was a very valuable experience,” says Joe Philip, Vice President of Engineering & Operations and co-founder of Black Star Energy.

“The developers, regulators and other mini-grid stakeholders who participated in Energy 4 Impact’s recent workshops in Tanzania and Uganda were very positive about the Quality Assurance Framework,” said Peter Weston, Director of Investment Advisory of Energy 4 Impact.

“They recognised the value of performance monitoring for minigrids in terms of improved operational performance and better regulatory compliance and customer relations.

They were also aware of how expensive and time-consuming it was to implement performance monitoring successfully. One of the problems is that different stakeholders often have very different objectives and data requirements, and the Quality Assurance Framework goes some way towards bringing together these different interests.”

These published materials will further support standardisation in the micro-grid sector and enable financially viable microgrid companies to expand and accelerate energy access across Africa.

This article originally appeared in Issue 2 2018 of our print magazine. The digital version of the full magazine can be read online or downloaded free of charge.

Co-authored by US-based Sam Booth, Senior Project Leader: Micro-grids at National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and South Africa-based Katrina Pielli, Senior Energy Advisor and Lead: Beyond the Grid at Power Africa.