Sustainability | Renewable Energy

Microgrids Spread Across Africa

Microgrids - Energy Solution

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Developing Microgrids

As African nations push for rural electrification, many look to microgrids as a sustainable solution to the energy poverty problem. Microgrids are increasingly being invested in and developed throughout Africa, especially where utilities can't reach, and/ or where local governments don't want to invest in the utility infrastructure needed to deliver energy.

Communities see tremendous benefits from microgrids in developing countries and developing economies (e.g. countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, and rural areas of many countries worldwide - especially those in remote locations).

Over half of the villages in Sub-Saharan Africa do not have access to electricity at all, dependent instead on dangerous and costly kerosene and diesel. The Brookings Institute estimates that electricity is not accessible in over 50% of households throughout Africa (only ~43% of African households have electricity).

Much of this problem is focused in poorer African countries. This lack of electricity in rural Africa is because utilities and local governments with control over utilities often don't even try to invest in the grid infrastructure needed for energy to be available in rural villages.

An energy solution for rural Africa are microgrids (this is also a solution for any remote area in the world - as described in GCT's main microgrid article). Microgrids can supply renewable energy (RE) + battery energy storage, or generate energy from fossil fuel sources coupled with RE + batteries (known commonly as hybrid microgrid systems).

Benefits of RE in Microgrids

Of the multiple fuel types run in various types of microgrids, RE-based microgrids are more cost-effective and safer compared to diesel generators, kerosene, and biomass - power sources that are widely used for electricity/ light/ heat/ power in Africa today. Kerosene often uses up to 20% of an average African's income, can cause fires, and unhealthy air quality.

Burning various sources of organic matter (wood, waste, other biomass...) for everyday household needs also results in unhealthy air quality and leads to serious health problems. Kerosene is especially toxic - causing health problems, burning people, giving off poor light, and can be up to 3-4 times as expensive as electrical light.

In terms of generating electricity it must be noted that, although not emissions-free like RE sources, natural gas is less polluting than diesel. Natural gas still creates polluting emissions, as the only way to avoid emissions in an energy fuel source is to use RE.

Fossil fuel-based generators, kerosene lamps, and the burning of wood and other organic matter to heat homes and to cook - results in environmental and health problems. RE avoids these problems.

By using RE in microgrids, as well as other distributed RE such as solar PV + LED/ USB charging kits - all polluting GHG emissions and particulates are avoided - resulting in a clean, healthy environment while generating affordable energy.

A medium-sized solar power system with battery storage can be easily used by over 50 households, or even an entire village, in many rural regions in Africa. The power can be used for lighting, cell phone charging, cooking, etc... And the power is affordable, efficient, reliable, environmentally friendly, and has no public health problems like kerosene.

Investing in Microgrids

This brief snippet describes the growth of microgrids and distributed RE in Africa, and the role financing systems like PAYGo plays in the expansion of African microgrids-

"Rapidly falling prices of renewable energy equipment and the development of new business models, such as pay-as-you-go (PAYGo) companies that utilize mobile money systems available in many African countries, have recently begun to usher in a new era of energy access via the off-grid solar lighting market. This could be an important stepping-stone to a more robust electricity infrastructure provided by microgrids. Off-grid devices – such as small solar-powered lanterns and self-contained solar home systems – provide enough electricity for minimal amenities such as lighting, cell phone charging and small appliances. The PAYGo business model has been a huge factor in the growth of this market because it allows people to pay for service when they can, in the same way that they have always bought most products.

Lighting Africa reports that as of 2017, “the global off-grid solar sector is providing improved electricity access to an estimated 73 million households.” According to the Lighting Africa report, the transition from kerosene and/or other conventional fuels to off-grid solar devices has saved people at least USD $5.2 billion during this time period, and significantly reduced greenhouse gas emissions.

Microgrid developers are often asked why they would want to compete with the fast-growing off-grid lighting sector. The answer is that the two technologies aren’t competing but are in fact complementary. Off-grid solar electricity has immediate appeal to householders because of its relative simplicity.

But, it cannot be scaled up to adequately power commercial businesses, health clinics, schools and other resources required for rural economic development. For that transition to occur, it’s necessary to take the next step up the energy ladder to microgrids, which can handle more robust electricity generation. Solar lighting is a worthy first step, but it’s likely that its users are going to discover – and want – the other amenities that electricity can bring."   FROM -

In addition to PAYGO, microgrids can be financed by public investment or private organizations; and avoid infrastructure costs that country-wide or regional grids represent. Microgrids represent both a worthy investment in communities, and a wonderful means of helping those communities access a safer, cleaner, more sustainable way of life

Summation of the Need for Microgrids in Rural Africa

Microgrids are important for remote communities in Africa. Electrification of rural villages has been made possible through them. Power needed for water pumping, and purification, is done with the help of various microgrids in Africa and other parts of the world. Mobile communication has a wider reach in the continent through telecom towers that are powered with microgrids.

Microgrids are cheaper than building power lines into forests and mountains, especially in the most remote locations in Africa. Poor communities in other third world countries will also benefit from having microgrids installed, especially when the utility grids don’t want to build long power lines to connect them to the grid.

Many microgrids, at least those based on RE and battery storage, don't emit GHGs. There are no issues with pollution, environmental hazards, or health hazards, with RE microgrid technologies.

Many African rural communities have already built microgrids as their primary energy source. Every time a new installation is made, the skill base of the locals is developed. Rural village community infrastructure is improved as well (water systems, cell phone charging systems, telecom systems, and, of course, electricity systems).

However, despite the recent momentum of microgrids, one of the reasons there are not enough microgrids in Africa is because of the prohibitive cost and lack of reasonable financing for microgrid technologies. Policy is needed to ensure that they are more affordable to the poor, remote villages in the continent.

"Microgrids as a self-sufficient energy system could potentially provide a solution to Africa’s ongoing low electrification rates. These small and often isolated electrification solutions with the ability to easily harness renewable energy sources could pose the answer – or at least part thereof to the continents electrification problems...."   FROM  -

Other articles on microgrids in Africa:

The Microgrid Knowledge Africa Channel

The Borgen Project: African Miccrogrids

Please also see:

Microgrids: Powering the Future


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Microgrids Spread Across Africa 589

Microgrids Spread Across Africa