Off-grid solutions being pioneered in developing countries
by Arasan Aruliah
January 15, 2019
The Alliance for Rural Electrification is a group of innovative companies operating in Asia, Africa and Latin America. They are already providing the essential customer and distribution analytics that all energy providers need to deliver their product to their customers cost-effectively. Given access to data is extremely limited in developing countries, that’s already a big step forward. Yet progress there will determine the future of energy efficiency and climate change for all of us. The energy innovation company Enrupt, has summarised their activities.
The market opportunity for off-grid innovation is not as small as you think. The size of the renewable energy market (including but not limited to off-grid systems) – in terms of investment is $300bn per year, $10bn per year is the approximate size of the microgrid market, and more than $50bn per year is the current market size for digitisation in energy. What is more, building innovations for off-grid users in remote areas today will create solutions that will serve the cities and infrastructures of tomorrow.
The importance of data to microgrids
Data is already a critical ingredient to scaling off-grid solutions today, and microgrids in particular bring access to rural populations in remote, hard to connect areas. Data helps to design the systems and size them in a way that is adapted to local communities. Data helps to run the equipment more efficiently by understanding operation and maintenance patterns. Data helps in understanding returns on investment. Data driven reports put things into perspective and allow investors to place more realistic expectations on off-grid energy entrepreneurs.
Minigrid developers and off-grid energy innovators have been challenged to build high quality 21st century electricity infrastructure for the poorest and most remote communities in the world with an expectation that commercial returns should be seen in as little as 5-7 years. Without good data this expectation is unrealistic and needs to change by providing data and more transparency to the off-grid energy industry. The industry cannot depend on expensive data centers and telco operations to build cheap off-grid solutions. It is therefore important to get access to the internet and underlying tech infrastructure at low cost.
The Alliance for Rural Electrification
Energy access companies are not waiting for others to act. Here are a selection of startups that are members of ‘The Alliance for Rural Electrification’ (ARE). The Alliance is an industry association, which brings the whole value chain of off-grid renewable energy together across 3 continents – Asia, Africa and Latin America. These startups are approaching the off-grid challenge with a nurturing of the ecosystem in mind:
SparkMeter provides smart metering solutions tailored to rural and central utilities in emerging markets. The simple plug-and-play solution enables utilities operating in remote locations to access a range of features – prepaid billing, customer communications, and remote monitoring and control – that improve their operations and help them achieve financial sustainability. In addition to recently closing a round a funding, SparkMeter was recently awarded grants by the Elemental Excelerator to support their expanded presence in Asia and by USAID to expand their work with central grid distribution utilities.
Infinite Fingers (what a great name!) works at the level of equipment. It monitors and controls off-grid power systems. They enable off-grid power systems to be low maintenance, reliable and scalable by applying monitoring and control technologies. Their customers can build and operate efficient off-grid systems with low maintenance and high returns.
FlexGrid proposes an innovative approach that combines the simplicity of a solar home system with the power of a mini-grid (supporting productive use). In comparison with the conventional mini-grids, a FlexGrid requires a substantially lower up-front investment to serve the same use-cases. A breakthrough in the fight against energy poverty is made possible through the use of Artificial (Swarm) Intelligence.
RVESol is the owner and operator of Kudura. KUDURA means “the power to change” in Swahili. Kudura is a green micro- or mini-grid-based solution (GMG – Green Mini-Grid) for sustainable rural development. It offers rural communities high-quality, sustainable and renewable energy and drinking water on an affordable pay-as-you-go (PAYG) basis. KUDURA is an integrated, containerised solution that is safe, reliable, weatherproof, designed and built to last over 20 years.
Odyssey is a digital platform for all players in the off-grid market – including project developers, vendors, financiers, donors, and governments. The broad-spectrum platform is built specifically to characterise, evaluate, aggregate, finance, develop, and monitor projects within the mini-grid sector in emerging markets.
Moreover, in a collaborative effort, Odyssey Energy and AMDA (Africa Minigrid Developers Association) are currently partnering to develop a standardised, streamlined data collection and analysis effort for the mini-grid sector which will be trialled initially with African minigrid developers. Then, through ARE’s members and others, it can be brought to the rest of the world’s minigrid developers and operators.
The goal of the partnership is to create an easy-to-use, secure platform for reporting and analysing key metrics related to mini-grid development and operations, as well as to provide a sectoral statistical benchmark and dataset for use in research, policy and financial instrument development for the sector.
The data gap
Data is critical for any sector of today’s economy, and the energy sector is no exception. But access to data is extremely limited in developing countries. Less than 20% of adults in India and Tanzania own a smartphone, in stark contrast to the 70% of people in Europe and US. These innovative companies are helping to bridge that gap.