HomeMagazine ArticleLiving lightly off the grid, where diesel remains centre stage

Living lightly off the grid, where diesel remains centre stage

With a realised figure estimated at 3,000 reliable, uninterrupted hours of sunlight each year, Africa is well positioned to be one of the most innovative markets for the adoption of widespread solar power for primary electric power generation. This realisation is matched with the hottest trend in power, going off-grid. This new dynamic combines new solar systems with advanced storage and a tried and true partner in electricity generators – a diesel ‘genset’. Known as a microgrid, the dynamic system integrates renewables, storage capacity and backup generators in an efficient and sustainable manner. Thanks to these microgrids, living lightly off the grid can happen today and Africa is geared to lead the way.

For many communities around the world, access to a reliable electricity supply has been a transformative journey, which has enabled a higher quality of life whilst contributing towards economic growth. For many outside of developed areas, this has been promoted by the use of diesel generators, a primary power provider.

Global consultancy, his, predicts that sales of diesel generators will expand by almost $7 billion between 2013 and 2018 – you may have some questions at this point as one would assume that the world is moving away from fossil fuels, right? – The anticipated growth in the market for diesel gensets reflects the increasing demand for electrical power and the fact that prime power may not be readily available or reliable from the national electricity grid. Many communities and businesses across Africa rely completely or partially on power from diesel gensets, which provide prime power in just about any location, capable of delivering power independent of a grid network. The only drawback is the access to and cost of fuel. Diesel fuel is the most energy dense fossil fuel and the diesel engine is the most efficient mechanism to turn this potential energy stored as fuel into useful mechanical energy or work. While diesel is the most efficient option for motive power, it may not be the most cost-effective solution to deliver long term prime-power.

Generators become efficient

While diesel generators are an essential component to any sustainable micro-grid, the engines themselves have also enhanced their performance and efficiency to become an integral solution to meet clean air and climate goals. The latest emission control solutions found on the large variety of commercial vehicles and off-road equipment result in near-zero emissions along with fuel savings potential. These technologies play an important role in improving air quality in many regions and are important in contributing to climate change commitment goals that many countries recently adopted in Paris in December 2015.

The latest clean diesel technologies depend on access to clean diesel fuel with low sulphur content. While much of sub-Saharan Africa does not have access to clean diesel fuel, the United Nations Environment Programme and other partners are actively working with fuel producers to provide clean diesel fuel as a necessary first step in the process of introducing the latest clean air technologies.

One of the great benefits of the diesel platform is its capability to operate on a variety of fuels including diesel fuel. In fact, the original diesel engine design patented by Rudolph Diesel was intended to operate on peanut oil. Today, much has changed about the diesel engine; it does more work using less fuel with lower emissions than ever before. However, what remains is its ability to use a wide array of renewable high-quality biofuels, many of which are derived from waste agricultural feedstock.

Seeking viable solutions

More communities across Africa are looking to the sun to provide low cost electricity, and to reduce reliance on diesel fuel for electricity generation. This is fast becoming a solution for many communities as the increased competition has driven the cost of the technology down to an affordable rate.

While Africa benefits from 3,000 hours of reliable uninterrupted hours of annual sunlight, that leaves 5,760 hours a year that the sun will not provide uninterrupted energy supply. This is when fossil fuels stand in and assist to ensure a continuous supply of reliable electricity along with battery backup capabilities. The International Energy Agency estimates that many communities across Africa have made expensive investments in their diesel generators to provide prime power or necessary backup power. The diesel platform is prized for its durability, longevity and reliability and these assets should not be discounted. The fleet of diesel generators can provide the much needed prime power in the absence of solar and battery backup capabilities. Investments made in diesel technology are a central component to any sustainable micro-grid. It is the best of all worlds: renewables that you want, with the reliability that you need.

Shining light in the micro-grid

The International Energy Agency recently highlighted the enormous potential these sustainable microgrids may offer to communities across the African continent. Population dense areas, including communities in Nigeria and the southern African region, have experience with a grid network, but at frequently intermittent levels requiring reliance on diesel gensets. Sustainable micro-grids offer these communities greater reliability at a much lower cost. Other less population dense communities in East Africa, for example, do not have experience with a grid network and have relied sometimes exclusively on diesel gensets for prime power. Again, sustainable micro-grid technology offers these communities a much lower cost of power generation while taking advantage of the past investment in the diesel genset.

The leaders of clean diesel technology are stepping up and developing innovative sustainable and scalable micro-grid technologies suitable for powering a single business or an entire village. In one instance, a solar array along with a diesel generator was adapted in Senegal in a unique hybrid system that minimises diesel fuel consumption and lowers maintenance costs. Another example is the development of a scalable and customised micro-grid for any on or off grid application that couples renewables with battery storage and backup power provided by a diesel generator.

These examples are being led by companies that are not only experts in diesel electric power generation, but also in the advanced controllers and switching technology that enables multiple power sources to be integrated and automated to ensure a seamless supply of electricity no matter the weather conditions. Many aspects of system performance can be monitored remotely as well, further enhancing the micro-grid system’s ability to be used in outlying regions.

It is entirely possible to envision a future where the diesel engine relies more on biofuels than traditional petroleum-based fuel, further contributing to its sustainable credentials. While communities across Africa have made investments in existing diesel generators to provide either prime power or necessary backup power, these assets can now be transformed into a new role as a backstop to the growing use of renewable and sustainable sources of power to help the continent show the way to live lightly off the grid. With diesel, you get the best of all worlds: renewables that you want, with the reliability that you need.


Ezra Finkin has served with the Diesel Technology Forum since July 2012. As the policy and outreach director, he works to educate various stakeholders and policy makers with state, local and federal governments about the importance of diesel technology and the economic benefits of continuing investments in emission reduction technologies.