May 27, 2017

Micro-Grids open door to rural electrification across sub-Saharan Africa

The growth of micro-grid solutions for power supply is gaining momentum across the globe, with both developed and undeveloped regions increasingly realising the value of energy solutions that do not depend on a centralised power grid. In the coming years, the most significant opportunities for micro-grids will be for rural electrification across sub-Saharan Africa.

This is according to Mark Makanda, regional sales director for APR Energy, who says in a region where approximately 600 million people lack access to electricity, micro-grids are beginning to provide energy to areas long perceived as too difficult or uneconomic to connect to a national grid.

Additionally, micro-grids have the potential to become the building blocks of a larger distributed grid in countries such as Malawi, where power supply is significantly less than the demand.

“There have been a substantial number of micro-grid applications in sub-Saharan Africa so far,” Makanda says. “Bringing electricity to these rural areas now means that they have access to proper medical care, lighting for schools, modern irrigation methods and sanitation.”

The installation of micro-grids in remote sub-Saharan communities also is providing an essential tool for local economic development. “The introduction of electricity opens the door to new commercial activities and revenue generation that previously were not feasible due to a lack of power. In addition, the generation facilities create job opportunities as local people hired and trained to operate the system,” Makanda explains.

Southern Africa has already produced a number of successful micro-grid installations. In South Africa, the infamous Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned, as well as the island of Ascension in the middle of the Atlantic, both run on micro-grid systems.

“We are also seeing many applications in the industrial sector,” Makanda says. “Two examples are the Zwartkop and Thabazimbi Chrome mines in South Africa, which are powered by gas-diesel hybrid micro-grids. This solution combines solar technology with high-speed reciprocating engines to offer the sustainable benefits of renewables and the reliability of conventional back-up power.”

The backbone of these micro-grids consists of mobile power modules that are the size of a trailer and can easily be transported to remote areas via air, road or sea. Once on-site, they can be up and running within 30 to 90 days. These modular plants also are easily scalable to accommodate local power needs, and can be quickly ramped up or down according to demand. These plants also offer economic advantages, since they require minimal capital investment, with the main cost considerations being the land and fuel.

“I believe that with the energy deficit we face in Africa and the rest of the developing world, there is not one single solution,” Makanda says. “Certainly, in urbanised areas, large-scale generating facilities and extensive transmission and distribution infrastructure make sense. In the remote areas of the world, such as sub-Saharan Africa, smaller and more economical solutions are needed, and that’s where local micro-grids can excel.”

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