To Solve its Power Distribution Problems, Africa Needs to Modernise and Decentralise its Grid

By Anastasia Walsh, International Energy Consultant

Electrification is an on-going and foundational investment, and a necessary one to realize all modern-day development objectives. Despite bullish policies, the fact remains that over 640 million Africans lack access to electricity. The effect of this is apparent. It impedes economic growth; it inhibits the advancements of self-reliant local communities, and it threatens national security. African governments are beginning to rethink their electrification plans. Grid modernisation, specifically the deployment of microgrids in rural areas, provides a promising strategy. 

The Centralized Utility Model Is Not Adequately Serving Africa’s Needs

Attempting to replicate the centralized utility models implemented in the U.S. and Europe has not succeeded in improving energy access across the continent. Despite this, it seems many governments and utilities wrongly maintain the position that the expansion of the traditional grid infrastructure is the solution. In areas where communities have access to the central grid, they still have to supplement the intermittency of the power with diesel generators. On the flip side, the utilities are financially strained because they are unable to collect revenues from their customers. The low rate of revenue collection is due to the unsustainable tariffs the providers impose on customers as a result of the political pressure exerted on them. This results in the utilities being unable to finance upgrades in infrastructure, further exacerbating the issues.

Those who favor the expansion of the central grid as the most effective means of increasing rates of electrification face the challenge of reconciling two contradicting positions. The first position is that increasing access requires lowering tariffs. The second position is that lowering tariffs will intensify the financial stress utilities are currently under. Neither of these positions is sustainable. The incorporation of microgrids into a hybrid system of electrification is the best solution.

Grid Modernisation and Microgrids

Microgrids are small-scale power grids that run on a combination of solar, wind, or biomass or fossil fuels to provide reliable power. They operate either independently from the main grid or can be synched to it at the same voltage to shift the energy and respond to peaks and troughs in supply and demand. This ensures there is no interruption in power supply, allowing communities to be more energy independent by cutting costs and providing reliable energy access.

Productive Use of Energy (PUE) is Key

The off-grid solar lighting market is thriving thanks to the falling prices of renewable energy equipment. The solar lighting market has been further bolstered by widespread deployment of pay-as-you-go (PAYGO) payment systems that utilize mobile-money technology. These solar devices provide sufficient generation for low consumption needs like household lighting, charging cell phones, and the use of small household appliances. Despite its attractiveness to householders, off-grid solar lighting is currently not scalable. The deployment of microgrids will be necessary to provide the adequate output required to power commercial businesses, hospitals, schools. Demand for electricity from small industry and business, which is classified as the productive use of energy will determine the success of microgrids; without this demand, the deployment of microgrids will not be financially viable. Ensuring the Productive Use of Energy enhances the economic and social development impacts of microgrids and rural electrification in the wider context.

Leading The Way: Kenya and Nigeria

Africa is forecast to be the world’s fastest-growing market for microgrids at a Compound Annual Growth Rate of 27%, representing 1,145MW by 2027. Within the continent, Kenya and Nigeria are at the forefront of the grid modernisation revolution.

With strong renewable energy and microgrid policies, Kenya has doubled its energy access rates since 2014. To reach its goal of 100% electrification by 2030, Kenya should implement a hybrid-decentralized system. This entails a combination of traditional utility distribution and the deployment of an extensive network of microgrids. The prevalent use of mobile money in the region, if harnessed correctly will provide the best means of collecting payment of energy bills. Nigeria similarly has ambitions to drastically increase their generating capacity by 2030 with 30% of that planned to be from renewable sources. Microgrids are expected to provide 5.3GW of this increased generation capacity.

Nation-Specific Policies

To improve energy access, African nations should consider incorporating the following into their policies: First, targeting rural populations for distributed energy via microgrids; then implementing low-cost and low-barrier permitting and licensing rules with standardized quality control and operating requirements; and finally ensuring that electrification strategies are financially viable.

Decentralized/ hybrid solutions such as microgrids are the most cost-effective solution. The PAYGO business model provides an efficient means for project developed to collect revenues from their investments.  Despite the tendency to paint all sub-Saharan countries with the same brush, as it relates to electrification rates, this is especially inappropriate. When it comes to implementing electrification and grid modernisation strategies, policymakers should consider their countries unique geography, natural resources, climate, population density, and power demand patterns.

About the author: Anastasia Walsh is a legal consultant that focuses on African energy access matters. She is passionate about driving policy changes to ensure electrification rates across continent increase. She believes that investment in power is the foundational bedrock of development and that a hybrid mix of energy solutions is critical to realising Africa’s potential. Anastasia holds an LLB from King’s College London and a LLM Energy, Natural Resources and Environment from the University of Houston.