Africa is at a crossroads. With more than 620 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa without access to reliable electricity, the future of energy in Africa is often debated. The continent is in the unique position to develop energy infrastructures from the ground up without the restrictions of adapting legacy fossil fuel systems. While large, centralized grids still constitute the most efficient and cost-effective way of delivering electricity, there are carbon emissions to consider, and for those who live in remote areas, it could be decades before a grid infrastructure reaches them. Current stopgap solutions, such as kerosene lamps and diesel generators may be relatively affordable, but come with a high toxic health price tag for users.
While we continue to hope for what Bill Gates calls a “breakthrough energy miracle” that provides even cheaper, cleaner energy for everyone, individuals, businesses and communities in Africa need power now. How the continent addresses the immediate need for reliable, affordable energy now will ultimately shape the future of energy in Africa.
Building the Bridge to the Future
It is too early to predict what the future energy distribution system will look like in Africa, making a flexible, adaptable initial infrastructure key. However, it is important to remember that each country has unique needs and resources, eliminating the plausibility of a one-size-fits-all solution. Solar microgrids are playing a significant role in shaping the foundation of the energy infrastructure in Africa. Microgrids provide affordable, off-grid pay-as-you-go power to entire communities, including both homes and businesses. Microgrids are a step up from individual home solar systems that provide power to one household at a time. Microgrids operate as off-grid, standalone solar power sources, but they can also be connected to a centralized grid, if and when grid power is available.
A look at Nigeria is a peek into the future of energy in Africa. Currently, only 55 percent of the urban population in Nigeria has reliable access to electricity, and only 36 percent of rural residents have access, according to the World Energy Outlook. This means that 98 million people are in need of reliable, affordable power sources just in Nigeria alone. Many Nigerian homes and businesses are bypassing the traditional centralized grid in favor of communities powered by microgrids. Community Energy Social Enterprises Limited, a Nigerian company, and Renewvia Energy Corporation are in the process of installing microgrids that will bring power to approximately 10,000 Nigerian homes by the end of 2017. Most customers will pay about $6 a month for electricity from the microgrid, without the toxic fumes from kerosene or diesel fuels.
Kenya is also leading the way in bringing power to homes and businesses. Renewvia Energy is currently conducting a feasibility study for the development of solar microgrids in key geographies in Kenya funded by a grant from the U.S. Trade and Development Agency (USTDA) as part of the Power Africa initiative. In Kenya, 60 percent of urban residents have electricity, but a mere seven percent of rural residents have access, for a total population of 36 million without electricity. In addition, Renewvia is also securing financing for the development of more than 20 megawatts (MW) of solar microgrids in Kenya over the next five years. These microgrids will help the Kenyan government reach its goal of 100 percent electrification for the population by 2030.
Rural electrification development requires extensive experience collaborating with local governments and utility organizations, as well as an in-depth understanding of how to work within the legal framework of each country. Companies implementing solar in Africa need in country-partners who are respected by the locals, have first-hand knowledge of local business customs, and who have a track record of success in the community. This also includes establishing a local platform that hires full-time local employees to execute projects.
Policy and government regulations regarding solar are still very much in development in many areas of Africa. This means some solar companies may install systems that will soon be out of compliance once regulation is finalized. It is critical to work with local governments to ensure that projects are not only regulatory compliant with existing regulations, but also anticipate future regulatory compliancy.
A Bright Future
Nigeria and Kenya are just two examples of countries framing the future of energy in Africa through microgrids. There is no doubt that Africa will realize its electrification goals. The hope is that the way forward includes the cleanest, most affordable power for the largest amount of people.