May 2018

Going wire-free in Africa: Two examples

Our last blog post focused on how microgrids in Africa can enable electrification in rural communities to encourage economic prosperity without the need of centralised grid infrastructure. This blog explores two examples that SOLA Future Energy has designed, engineered and built – and how these might be replicated in African communities.

Robben Island – an isolated microgrid

Robben Island’s state-of-the-art microgrid is the largest combined solar and lithium-ion storage facility in South Africa. The microgrid, consisting of a combined solar PV facility and a battery bank, has enabled the island to move away from its diesel generators. Since adopting this green energy system, the island has already produced 650 000 kWh of solar energy – an average of 3250 kwh per day – which has significantly reduced its reliance on traditional diesel generators, a noisy and expensive feature of the energy system.

In the past, diesel had to be transported by ship from the mainland to fuel the diesel generators. The island’s load is primarily occupied by a desalination plant and to provide power for the 100 residents who live on the island. The cost of purchasing and transporting the diesel formed a substantial portion of the island’s operating budget. Over and above the financial considerations, the noise and dust emanating from the generators were not creating a tourist-friendly environment.

Robben island is now powered by the sun
Cedar Mill Mall – solar and batteries enabling development

Robben Island is a perfect example of how microgrids can provide electricity supply in rural contexts that are isolated from electricity grids. However, even grid-connected businesses can benefit from microgrid technology.

This is exactly why Noble Property Fund, developers of Cedar Mill shopping centre in Clanwilliam, a rural town in the Cederberg region of the Western Cape in South Africa, approached SOLA Future Energy to help with their power supply needs. Initially, the developers had applied for a 500 kVA connection from Eskom to power the facility, but the parastatal was only able to approve half of their demand requirements due to local constraints to the grid.

Faced with a major supply shortage, the developers were forced to consider utilising noisy and expensive diesel generators to make up the shortfall. As an alternative, SOLA suggested the use of solar PV and batteries to make up for the shortage, and has subsequently been appointed to integrate a microgrid into the shopping centre. Consisting of a 851kWp solar PV system with a 700kWh lithium ion battery, the microgrid makes up for the power shortfall – allowing the mall’s development to continue.  

“Incorporating a microgrid into the shopping centre turned out to be a financially attractive solution when considering how much energy could be harvested and stored from solar PV,” said Mario Dos Reis, director of Leasing at Noble Property Fund. “The shopping centre will be a blessing for small business owners in the town looking for an accessible and safe location to trade”.

As such, although the mall already had grid connection, the solar PV microgrid enabled the building of the mall to go ahead. This mall will become an economic hub of activity in the mostly rural region, providing jobs and economic spinoffs to the local community. The cost-savings of the building owners will trickle down to tenants, and hopefully make businesses more profitable as a result.

Cedar Mill Mall goes solar

Entasopia Kenya, powered by solar microgrid

Microgrids in Africa: rethinking the centralised electricity grid

Think about it: just two decades ago, many African towns were barely accessible because of the lack of telephone line infrastructure to key development areas. Today, cellular technology has allowed communications to leapfrog telephone line technology and provide communications without expensive, centralised infrastructure.

Mobile technology in Africa

A similar argument can be made about electricity. Now that both solar PV and battery costs have reduced significantly, microgrid technology promises to be an opportunity for Africa to leapfrog traditional grid-based electricity – a typically fossil-fuel heavy, centralised mode of providing power. 

Africa is a uniquely positioned continent, because of its widely-dispersed nodes of development over large geographic areas. As a result of this, the costs of building electrical infrastructure over geographically large areas have typically inhibited electrification, leaving large parts of African countries without electricity – in fact, Africa remains the least electrified continent in the world with only 35% of the continent having access to electricity.

Much of Africa remains disconnected from electricity grids

Microgrid technology is inherently decentralised, as it operates as a smart grid on its own, smaller scale, often using wireless technology. A cornerstone of microgrid technology is solar PV and batteries, since they are deployable in decentralised areas and do not require massive infrastructure to function. Combined, microgrids would seem to carry immense potential for Africa.

Despite this, a report published on PV magazine found that only 1% of electricity investment in the 20 least electrified countries was spent on decentralised energy production, despite at least 40% of electrification being suitable for microgrid deployment in these countries. This presents a massive opportunity – both for the unelectrified communities, as well as for electricity developers in Africa. Microgrids could be a sustainable – and affordable – solution for energy access in Africa.

But are microgrids proven to work? Take an example of Entasopia, a small village in the south of Kenya. The village, disconnected from Kenya’s national electricity grid, is supplied power by a small solar PV microgrid.  This microgrid enables 60 homes, small businesses, and even a petrol station to run, making the area a hive of economic activity and enabling growth even in the remote area. With this technology, schools and clinics can access electricity and businesses can sprout up, enabling economic empowerment in previously isolated areas.

Entasopia Kenya, powered by solar microgrid

Entasopia, Kenya, powered by solar microgrid

The Robben Island solar PV microgrid is also a great example of converting an existing diesel generation system to a smart PV and battery coupled microgrid. Even though the island was already supplied by diesel generators, the cost of diesel meant that the addition of solar PV and batteries still made perfect business sense – it’ll pay itself back in about 5 years. The island’s activities – including the bustling harbour and desalination plant – are now powered almost entirely by clean energy, and the ecologically sensitive island is no longer affected by the diesel and noise emissions from the generators.

Robben Island solar PV microgrid

Robben Island solar PV microgrid

The fact that microgrids make business sense not only for completely disconnected communities but also for those with existing, fossil-heavy grids (such as Robben Island) show demonstrable effectiveness for further applications – such as mining. Mining activities can now rely on PV and battery coupled microgrids, where previously they relied on diesel generation. These microgrids provide a solution that can not only save mining operations money, but also reduce the environmental impact of the mining activity.

SOLA Future Energy is a proudly African company, and we believe in the potential that affordable, clean energy can bring for the whole continent. Despite its historically slower economic growth, we believe that Africa is in a unique position now, particularly because of the way in which new technologies can assist the continent to spur development. Get in touch with us to find out how microgrids could assist your business or community.