Are microgrids the answer to power Africa?

Many people underestimate the size of Africa. Made up of 54 sovereign states, it’s the same size as China, India, Europe, and the US combined. But no single country is the same. It’s home to the longest river in the world (the Nile), the largest hot desert in the world (the Sahara) and over 2000 different languages. Can the continent be powered?

Sabine Dall’Omo

While some African cities are modern, metropolitan places, others still lack much-needed infrastructure. In sub-Saharan Africa, in some places only two in five people have access to a reliable source of electricity. According to the World Bank, some countries are at a crisis point; without electricity, school children can’t read at night, hospitals can’t refrigerate medicines, and businesses can’t grow.

Look at anywhere in the world and you’ll find that whatever people do that makes them human is powered by electricity. Development in Africa isn’t about GDP, it’s about humanly connected services. One thing people forget is that you need electricity to pump water, and that’s the next big issue facing Africans  – the availability of water.

There are solutions to Africa’s problem. Microgrids are seen as the next step in renewable energy. Comprising small networks of people, business, and public services all hooked up to a source of power independent from the national grid, consumers sell excess solar power to their neighbours. It’s seen as being cutting-edge and a step towards a localised supply of power.

Reliable and cheap energy is a high priority for the continent. Utilities are generally state-run enterprises in many African countries and politicians often run for office by campaigning for greater access to electricity. Electricity in whatever form is a winner in elections. Everybody wants it.

On a global scale, Africa doesn’t trade nearly as much as it could. For many, Africa is essentially used as a source of raw materials. Minerals are shipped off elsewhere, become part of the global value chain and return as finished products.

A lack of reliable infrastructure makes investing in new businesses risky. Despite that, Africa is a hotbed of good ideas. In 2015, a British index named Africa as one of the world’s most entrepreneurial places. According to Harvard Business Review, one of the reasons for the continent’s entrepreneurial spirit goes right back to the great recession.

When Africans based in the US lost their jobs, many of them returned home with an array of technical and managerial skills, as well as a wealth of global networks. Today, many of the continent’s governments are keen to invest in young business opportunities. Africa is 25% of the world’s population and has the youngest population. This combination of creative-minded young people and potential could make Africa the next big business hub.

But that is impossible without access to cheap, reliable electricity; and in Africa, that’s no easy feat. The main reason for the lack of power generating infrastructure comes down to geography. Transmitting electricity from a power station to remote areas isn’t just impractical, it’s virtually impossible. Long distances, with very few customers residing along the lines, needs industrial demand to make overhead lines feasible.

Distance doesn’t just impact the quantity, it also affects the quality. Extreme heat can cause technical losses in overhead lines. Between thousands of km of infrastructure and surplus loss through weather conditions, by the time electricity reaches the user it’s too expensive for them to afford. On top of the cost, one also needs to get different countries to work together on these large-scale projects. A lot of African countries are defined by their beliefs: 54 different languages, customs and currencies doesn’t help when it comes to working with a globalised market.

With all these issues, localised solutions are needed. Thanks to an abundance of new technologies, overhead lines aren’t the only solution to transmitting power and Africans are receptive to new technologies. Just as Africa leapfrogged telephones lines to go mobile, it looks like the continent is set to do the same with power. Microgrids are the ideal solution for Africa because they’re designed for a specific purpose, be it communities or industry. But it also means you can have diverse power supplies, such as part-solar or wind during the day, then switch over to diesel or biomass when the conditions for renewables are poor.

Every country has a different legal framework, but unlike governments elsewhere, the privatisation of energy is seen as a welcome prospect. A business might set one up to ensure it has a reliable source of power, but it also means local services and households can link up to these systems, creating a microgrid. Where governments don’t have the funds to establish local electricity generation systems, private microgrids may be the answer.

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