Figure 2: EarthSpark: A solar panel on the roof of a home in Les Anglais charges a battery for use at night

Residents of the Annobon Province, an island off Equatorial Guinea in Central Africa, have only 5 hours of electricity access per day and spend almost 15-20% of their salary on additional energy resources such as kerosene. This is all about to change – with the installation of a 5MW solar microgrid to provide a reliable source of power, 24 hours a day.

The government of Equatorial Guinea has selected MAECI Solar, together with GE Power and Water systems and Princeton Power Systems, to design Africa’s largest self-sufficient solar microgrid, handling 100% of the island’s energy demand. The need for clean and sustainable power has never been more apparent than it is now, with over 1.3 billion people globally living without access to electricity. Decentralised, modular energy systems, or microgrids as they are commonly known, continue to play a vital part in many electrification schemes in the developing world. The International Energy Agency (IEA) presented a scenario (Energy for All) for universal modern energy access by 2030. In this, 70% of rural areas are either connected with mini-grids or small-scale stand-alone off-grid solutions [World Energy Outlook 2011].

This article originally appeared in Issue 3 2014 of ESI Africa print magazine on page 62. The digital version of the full magazine can be read online or downloaded free of charge.

These small-scale energy systems make it possible for remote communities to put an end to their dependence on fossil fuels. The declining cost of solar photovoltaic (PV) technologies and growth in the energy storage market are seeing the proliferation of solar microgrid deployments, especially in India and Africa, where sunshine is plentiful. This abundant renewable source makes grid parity between renewables and traditional generation a possibility; and creates a viable alternative to extending the grid in isolated areas where the cost of extending transmission lines is prohibitive. Difficult terrain and logistical challenges make expanding the central grid unfeasible. Senior analyst for Navigant Research Peter Asmus puts it this way: “Remote microgrids can serve as the anchors of new, appropriate scale infrastructure, a shift to smarter ways to deliver humanitarian services to the poor.” 1 According to the IEA, 84% of the globe’s rural un-electrified communities can be found in sub-Saharan Africa and developing Asia.

As it stands, two thirds of the population lacks access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa. Columbia University’s Earth Institute, through the Millennium Villages initiative, took on the challenge of devising ways to increase electricity access in rural Mali. It developed the SharedSolar pay as-you-go electricity model rather than installing unaffordable individual solar home systems. A scalable microgrid was created that includes solar PV, batteries and smart meters. (see Figure 1.) The pilot for SharedSolar technology was first tested in Pelangala, Mali, and provides 172 households with electricity.

New programmes are being developed in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and Haiti. Further west in Sine Mousaa Abdou, Senegal, German based company, Inensus has joined forces with Matforce, a Senegalese company, to create a joint venture – Inensus West Africa S.A.R.L – aiming to electrify the households of 70 families dependent on kerosene lamps and candles. After the installation of a hybrid microgrid, using wind, solar and diesel at peak times, residents of the village now pay $1.40 per kWh for electricity. Access to electricity has meant that the local school is able to purchase a computer for its students; and the local tailor, who once operated his sewing machine with a treadle, can now earn six times as much operating an electric sewing machine.

The micro-energy provider uses smart meters to track consumers’ electricity consumption. Users are asked to purchase a week’s worth of power in advance. A discounted rate is afforded to customers who can predict and commit to electricity usage six months ahead. This data assists in keeping costs and emissions down by ensuring that the wind and solar systems can meet the demand and that the diesel generators are sparingly used to cater for any excess demand.

The model upon which the microgrid operates has been labelled the MicroPowerEconomy model.

“We developed this model and hope to see it become one of our main business segments,” says Nico Peterschmidt, founder of Inensus GmbH. “Our objective is to earn money in Senegal as an energy provider. The return on investment for our backers is between 10 and 15%. What makes this possible is the economic development at village level that results from electrification.” On the operational success of the MicroPowerEconomy model, Peterschmidt continued: “We break down the energy business to village level.

1.Remote Microgrids, Pike Research (June 2012)

How the SharedSolar system works

Here’s how the system works: a central, small-scale (1.4 kW generating capacity with 16.8 kWh battery storage) solar system connecting to up to 20 customers (homes, businesses, or small institutions such as schools) within a 100 meter radius via underground cables. End users buy prepaid scratch cards from local vendors according to their needs and budget. Each card contains a code which, when sent by text message to a payment server, credits a smart power meter located inside the premises. Electrical current is now available. The meter monitors usage until the customer’s credit is exhausted, at which point the circuit is switched off until more funds are added.

Excerpt from an article by Jeremy Hinsdale, Millennium Villages (April 2012)

That means we have to face our competitors at village level – the villages have to want our model and organise themselves accordingly. The idea is to use this access to energy to generate growth in the village economy. So we need to bring on board a microfinance organisation. We only invest under these conditions.”

Paulo Mele, East Africa manager for Renewable World, explains: “Small companies often have the most innovative ideas and highest ambition to electrify rural villages as these entrepreneurs often come from villages and know what they are talking about. Unfortunately [the] core equity to build a business upon these ideas is rare. Finding investors that are prepared to enter in [at] such an early stage is extremely difficult.”2 East of the African continent, microgrids may offer the best solution for the many Indian households without access to electricity. As the Indian population continues to experience rapid growth in peri-urban areas, dependence on centralised coal plants is not a viable option. Approximately 200 villages are powered by a variety of renewable energies, predominantly solar mini-grids.

Poverty-stricken state Uttar Pradesh receives electricity from solar microgrids, built and operated by Mera Gao Power. Four solar panels and four batteries provide enough power for 100 households to each have four LED lights and a cell phone charger. Household consumers pay $0.50 cents per week for power.

Husk Power Systems, based in Bihar, provides electricity to thousands of rural Indians using rice husks to power villages through biomass gasification. 500-700 households are electrified by a 32kW system. Similarly, in the Meerwada community, villagers pay $1-$1.50 a month for electricity – equivalent to what they were paying for dirty diesel and kerosene – but vastly improving on the quality of light they receive. The 14kW solar mini-grid used in this case, and provided by Sun Edison, supplies 400 residents with clean, reliable power. Navigant Research recently predicted that the demand for remote and grid-tied microgrids in the Asian Pacific Region is expected to grow from 37MW in 2013 to 597.3MW in 2023.

2.Scaling up Successful Micro-Utilities for Rural Electrification, Sustainable Business Institute (October 2013).

The rural village of In Ban Houaypha, in the Luang Prabang Province of Laos, is situated 42km away from the nearest grid connection. The village has close to 500 residents with a monthly household income of $41.50, equivalent to a miniscule $1.38 a day. “Access to energy is an essential ingredient for the economic and social development of rural, poor communities,” said Yves Maigne, director of Fondation Energies pour le Monde, an NGO focused on renewable energy-based rural electrification.


Figure 2: EarthSpark: A solar panel on the roof of a home in Les
Anglais charges a battery for use at night


The In Ban Houaypha mini-grid is part of the foundation’s long-term electrification strategy in Laos – to bring power to 10 000 Laotians – thereby contributing to the Lao Government’s target of 90% electrification by 2020. With solar grid power, residents now spend only $1.25 – $3.75 monthly to keep the lights on. A public-private partnership between Entec and Sunlabob resulted in a hybrid PV Solar and diesel microgrid in the remote area of Xieng Khuang Province, powering 110 households. 200kW of power, generated from the Nam Kha II hydro plant, has been added to service 650 households since the commissioning of the hybrid grid in 2007.

Sunlabob has expanded beyond its Laos-based roots to bring its community centred, self-sustaining models for rural electrification and clean water throughout the Asia-Pacific region, India and Africa, where a 60kW solar mini-grid lights up six buildings at a community centre in Pujehun in Sierra Leone. The company has additionally secured its largest contract to date $36 million, provided by the European Commission – supplying the outer islands of Kiribati with solar systems.

Sunlabob will continue to develop its concept in the South East Asian country of Myanmar, which is desperately in need of electric infrastructure. Current estimates are that 42 million of Myanmar’s residents are without access to electricity, with only 4% of the country’s rural population having access. In Haiti, much progress has been made since EarthSpark, a non-profit organisation delivering off-grid sustainable energy services, first started supplying its microgrid customers. EarthSpark has been working to provide clean, affordable electricity access to the town of Les Anglais since 2008. (see Figure 2.)

“The average Haitian household spends about $10.00 per month on kerosene and candles to light their home,” says Dan Schnitzer, founder and executive director of EarthSpark International. “With electricity,” he says, “it only costs them about $2.00 per month.” The organisation was recently announced as the winner of the $1.1 million grant from USAID’s “Powering Agriculture: An Energy Grand Challenge for Development” programme.

The grant funding is able to support the extension of the existing microgrid in Les Anglais. The once solely diesel mini-grid will become a “town-sized solar-diesel hybrid smart grid”, serving residential as well as commercial customers. The funding will mean a huge boon for local entrepreneurs in the agricultural sector, and will encourage upgrades to processing facilities. The current microgrid, which supplies power to 52 households, will be extended to provide power to 400 customers by mid to end 2014. Says Allison Archambault, president of EarthSpark: “Basically, we are taking one hundred years of people’s experience managing power systems – the lessons learned and the technology available now – and building the best possible system in these developing areas.”

“There is no incumbent infrastructure where we’re building these grids. We’re leapfrogging to the next generation, similar to what mobile phone operators did in these kinds of countries.”

This article originally appeared in Issue 3 2014 of ESI Africa print magazine on page 62. The digital version of the full magazine can be read online or downloaded free of charge.