Energy Revolution Africa

Mini grids set to electrify industry

Andrew Tonto Barfour.jpg

African policy makers are hesitant about renewable energy because they’ve not been adequately exposed to the impact it could have on the continent’s economic growth. Here, off-grid experts tell us about progress to date and what may be possible in the future. By Vanessa Rogers.

Of their work in the renewable energy (RE) sphere, engineers Andrew Barfour (also project coordinator at GEDAP), and fellow engineers Frank Yeboah Dadzie and Seth Mahu say it revolves around innovative RE solutions on behalf of the Ghanaian government. ‘Interventions span off-grid standalone installations for public, private and commercial establishments, mini grids for island communities, utility-scale RETs, policies and strategies, and fundraising for public sector projects,’ they say. What invigorates them about this work, Barfour adds, is the livelihood transformation for beneficiaries. The team is also inspired by the opportunities and order created through their work on policies, i.e.: mini-grid policy; the Renewable Energy Act 2011 (Act 832); and tariff rate-setting instruments.

Barfour takes his place, alongside other knowledgeable speakers, delegates and interested parties, at African Utility Week and Energy Revolution Africa, at the CTICC this week (16 to 18 May 2017). Barfour spoke on Tuesday, 16 May, on how Ghana’s Ministry of Power is driving their mini-grid programme.

Felix Philipp, Project Manager at Impact Amplifier, reminds us that as stated in Impact Amplifiers' Energy Access at the Base of the pyramid Report, the first two mini-grid pilot projects undertaken in SA failed – they were abandoned shortly after construction because there was no model in place to collect fees from users, nor operate and maintain the system. A third pilot, set up by Zonke Energy (see sidebar 3), in which households in the Jabula informal settlement, Cape Town, pay a fixed weekly/monthly fee for access, has worked well. Power from this mini grid provides lighting and charges/powers cell-phones, radios and other optional appliances at $0.07 (R1) per hour.

According to Philipp, as an experienced inclusive innovation specialist in the field of sustainability, it is not just the system that must be worked on and set up, but community buy-in that must be achieved. Other challenges he cites include ‘security, funding of initial costs, and getting money in from users’.

Marco Rahner, head of Technical Sales at Siemens, says his primary focus in the space relates to protection and automation of substations for energy transmission and distribution. He’s also focusing on opportunities within the control of micro grids and renewable integration. ‘What inspires me,’ he adds, ‘is the integration element of the various generation sources; furthermore, I’m exposed to all the new renewable technologies.’

Rahner concurs with Barfour et al and Philipp that small, off-grid projects are the best way to expand access to electricity. ‘Mini or micro grids provide an immediate solution for rural Africa … incorporating RE sources. But many African countries have REAs that are largely dependent on the extension of the grids to get power to rural communities. The introduction of small-scale grids, with distributed generation, provide another great option,’ he explains.

Aside from M-KOPA, an innovative off-grid project that uses telecommunication to create a user-friendly beneficiary system, Barfour et al single out the GEDAP mini-grid projects as noteworthy. These provide a 24/7 electricity supply for five Ghanaian communities, by means of a clever pre-paid mechanism. An estimated 600 million Africans lack access to electricity, a population that resides predominantly in remote communities. ‘Off-grid projects are effective in many of these cases (farmlands, islands), where huge investment would be required to electrify them via the grid,’ says Barfour.

Cost-savings and more…

 Off-grid products are 35 to 60 percent cheaper than kerosene- and diesel-burners; additionally, they provide a reliable and uninterrupted power supply through robust components, better battery-life, five-year warranties and improved energy-management technology, versus kerosene-lantern technology advises Barfour.

Power for the purse strings

‘With advancements in technology, off-grid solar is expected to make significant contributions to economic growth in Africa,’ says the team led by Barfour. It can’t happen more rapidly for this continent where, according to the World Bank, chronic shortages of power trim approximately two percent off annual economic growth.

Powers that be

‘The privately owned portion of the African off-grid sector will have to use existing resources to gain critical mass so as to become a “force to be reckoned with”,’ says Dr Hendrik Schloemann, founder of Zonke Energy. ‘Once this is achieved,’ he adds, ‘finance, manufacturers and policy makers will come to the table.’ During African Utility Week, Dr Schloemann presented a case study on the topic: ‘Servicing urban off-grid communities with renewable energy’.

GEDAP: the Ghana Energy Development and Access Project at the Ghana Ministry of Power

RETs: real estate transactions

REAs: Rural Electrification Authorities

CTICC: Cape Town International Convention Centre

RE: Renewable Energy

FBE: Free Basic Electricity

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