Magazine article Global Finance

Microgrids to Plug Electric Gap

Magazine article Global Finance

Microgrids to Plug Electric Gap

Article excerpt

Around 60% of Africans lack reliable access to grid-connected electricity. And while the African Development Bank and other multilateral agencies have ambitious plans to increase conventional and hydro-generating capacity and extend grid networks, it is the fast-growing off-grid industry that is set to bridge most of Africa's energy gap.

Recent research by the Africa Progress Panel, headed by Kofi Annan, found that off-grid solar technology, microgrids (generating less than 50 kW) and larger minigrids will be crucial to meet the energy needs of the 650 million Africans without reliable access to electricity. The International Energy Agency estimates that about 40% of them can be effectively served by minigrids.

"This translates to about 60,000 minigrid systems for mainly rural and remote areas," says Jon Exel, World Bank senior energy specialist. Costs are falling rapidly, and the off-grid industry, currently dominated by pay-as-you-go household solar kits, is trending toward connected microgrids that offer a more secure supply.

"Until very recently, renewables-based microgrids were more expensive," says Tobias Bischof-Niemz, former head of the Energy Centre at South Africa's Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. "Now they are cheaper."

That is largely because solar panels, wind turbines and electricity storage "are now mass-manufactured products rather than specifically engineered," BischofNiemz says. In the future, he adds, "There will be standardization of microgrid design rather than each one being an engineered project using off-the-shelf bits, thereby cutting costs even further."

Bischof-Niemz admits microgrids are not a perfect substitute for large transmission grids. But African countries have great potential to leapfrog conventional fossil-fuel systems by installing mini- or microgrids on-site or near customers, he argues. …

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