Fast-Growing User Base Suggests Evolutionary Growth Spurt in the Making for Developing-World Solar Mini-Grids

Private power utilities in Africa, Asia and Latin America are developing more than 550 “green” mini-grids – over USD550 million worth, according to Odyssey Energy Solutions, developer of a cloud-based software platform that connects developing-world mini-grid developers and investors.

The breadth and depth of Odyssey Energy Solutions’ user base, as well as that of its project pipeline, suggests a pivot point regarding the evolution of markets and industry for distributed solar and other environmentally friendly forms of renewable power generation, distribution and access may be in the making across the developing world. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that deployment of as many as 200,000 mini-grids would be needed to bring sustainable electricity to the estimated 1 billion people worldwide who lack access to power grids.

Least-Cost Solution For Delivering Universal Electricity Access (Sub-Saharan Africa) 2030
Click here to view the full-size graphics. | Courtesy of IEA.

IEA has concluded that mini-grids are the lowest-cost option when it comes to reaching 450 million of those 1 billion people. Sub-Saharan Africa is home to two-thirds of those 450 million people. Solar Magazine spoke with Odyssey Energy Solutions’ co-founder and CEO Emily McAteer to learn more about the young company’s software platform, the solar and renewable energy mini-grid projects listed on it, and their significance with regard to achieving headline UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), such as universal access to sustainable energy, universal gender equality and eradication of poverty.

A seminal, shared experience

Odyssey Energy Solutions arose as a result of McAteer and co-founder Cathy Zoi’s experience working together to develop distributed solar and renewable mini-grid projects in India and East Africa as the founders of SunEdison’s rural microgrid development business. The two stayed in touch and continued their collaboration even as Zoi went on to found or serve as a senior executive for decentralized, new tech-driven energy start-ups, as well as for venture capital firms investing in them.

More recently, Zoi served as chief of staff for the White House Office for Environmental Policy and Assistant Deputy Secretary of the US Dept. of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy for former President Barack Obama’s administration. She is now CEO of EVgo, which has installed and operates the largest network of electric-vehicle (EV) fast-charging stations in the US.

A one-stop shop of developing-world, renewable mini-grid project development

Odyssey Energy Solutions bills its software platform as the first, “one-stop shop” for developing-world mini-grid project development. That encompasses everything from developers listing projects in order to raise funding and enabling prospective investors to vet them and assess their prospects to monitoring and managing projects throughout their life cycles – from design, engineering and construction to commissioning and beyond.

“Our vision for Odyssey is to offer the machinery the sector needs to scale by streamlining the development and financing of mini-grids around the world – getting more mini-grids deployed faster,” McAteer said in an interview. “We launched Odyssey after building the platform for about nine months, but we’re constantly improving the software based on feedback from the sector to enhance data analytics, provide useful software tools for project development, and monitor projects once they are operating.”

The number and variety of organizations making use of Odyssey’s platform, as well as that of its project pipeline, suggests the developing-world mini-grid market and industry is poised for, or somewhere in the midst of, an evolutionary growth spurt. The falling cost and improving performance of solar photovoltaic (PV) power generation, battery-based energy storage, smart-grid and wireless digital information and communications technology comprise the core set of tools that’s facilitating this.

A fast-growing user base and renewable mini-grid project development pipeline

More than 100 organizations are using Odyssey Energy Solution’s cloud-based mini-grid project development software-as-a-service (SaaS). Members range from leading multilateral development and national government agencies to leading project developers, including ambitious, entrepreneurial start-ups; equipment manufacturers, suppliers and systems integrators.

Odyssey’s Comprehensive Tool Suite for Project Developers
The tool suite helps project developers design, build, and operate rigorous and data-driven microgrids — and directly connect with investors and suppliers.

The Shell Foundation and its Factor E Ventures technology venture capital arm were Odyssey’s first financial backers, McAteer recounted. The USAID-led Power Africa program, the UK Department for International Development and the DOEN Foundation have invested in the start-up since.

According to management, the 550-plus mini-grid projects on Odyssey Energy Solutions’ platform represent 275,000 connections with an installed solar power generation capacity of some 150 MW. They range in value from USD40,000-USD3 million and span a wide geography that extends to 21 countries. That includes Cameroon, Cape Verde, Democratic Republic of Congo, Ethiopia, Ghana, Haiti, India, Kenya, Lesotho, Myanmar, Niger, Nigeria, Philippines, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Somalia, South Africa, Tanzania, Uganda, Zambia, and Zimbabwe.

“Odyssey has allowed us to quickly conduct rigorous technical and economic analyses for mini-grid projects in our pipeline and then create portfolios suitable for financing,” Havenhill Synergy CEO Olusegun Odunaiya stated for a press release.

Smarter mini-grids, more financing programs

Essentially, Odyssey’s cloud-based SaaS enables mini-grid project stakeholders to see to three critical facets of renewable energy mini-grid project development and management: access verifiable data throughout a project’s life-cycle in standard formats, analyze that data in a variety of ways, including carrying out feasibility studies and due diligence; and managing all types of project financing programs. The latter include expressions of interest, requests for proposals (RFPs), competitive tenders, and performance-based grant funding.

Building and managing performance-based grant funding programs lends itself particularly well to computerized automation, and that’s reflected in the value end users place on it, McAteer explained. “The need to assess thousands and tens of thousands of project data points makes it the best-suited to software automation. Doing so makes it much easier, and much, much faster to access, verify and review the number of projects’ active connections and a variety of other key performance indicators,” she said.

In addition to going a long way towards achieving UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7 – universal access to sustainable energy – deployment of decentralized solar and other renewable energy-centered mini-grids is considered a keystone for achieving other UN SDGs, such as achieving gender equality and eradicating poverty. The confluence of two key trends makes for an encouraging outlook regarding renewable mini-grid development across the developing world, according to McAteer.

UN’s Sustainable Development Goal 7
Image: courtesy of United Nations

“Mini-grids are getting smarter and smarter – they’re gathering more and more in the way of critically important empirical data that they’re able to analyze and report for all these distributed energy assets. At the same time, we have an increasing number of financing programs so that these mini-grids can be built,” McAteer said. “We’re trying to make it easy and much more efficient to do that.”

A virtuous spiral takes shape

Odyssey continues to enhance its SaaS platform based on feedback and dialogue with end-users. The start-up is in the latter stages of adding a new software module specifically designed to enhance the ability of multilateral development and national government agencies to launch, cultivate and manage renewable energy mini-grid programs.

The greater volume and granularity of standardized data being collected on Odyssey’s platform is leading end-users to pay more attention, and devote more resources, to mini-grid quality of service and data quality assurance, McAteer explained. “We’re developing and integrating key metrics into Odyssey so that program managers can monitor quality assurance across a range of parameters – power reliability and power availability, for example,” she told Solar Magazine.

Odyssey’s user base has been growing at a 30-40 percent rate from month to month recently, according to management. “With no outbound marketing, we’re seeing incredible uptake of the Odyssey platform,” McAteer touted.

“Odyssey is proving just how quickly the mini-grid sector is taking off around the globe. By using software and data analytics to streamline and standardize mini-grid project development and financing, we’re able to aggregate projects into bankable portfolios that meet investors’ ticket sizes and diligence requirements, paving the way for more capital to come into the sector,” she said.

Another potentially significant trend is taking shape in the African and developing-world market for green mini-grids – project developers and partners are increasingly investing in putting green mini-grids to productive use, McAteer highlights.

Green mini-grids and productive use

Solar Magazine: Solar Industry News and Insights

The variety of mini-grid “productive use” initiatives is expanding as mini-grid owners or investors partner with local entrepreneurs or local businesses to start new businesses that depend on the ready availability of affordable electrical power and energy, or improve prospects of existing businesses by investing in electrical equipment or devices, McAteer explained. They can range from investing in businesses that install water pumps and agricultural irrigation systems, others that make and sell ice or bottled water, install refrigeration equipment or offer high-energy efficiency, low-power household electrical appliances and devices, for instance.

Investing in productive use of mini-grids addresses a big question with regard to the potential of distributed renewable energy resources to serve as a foundation pillar for climate-change mitigation and broad-based, sustainable socioeconomic development, thereby make substantial contributions to achieving multiple UN SDGs.

Developing-World Solar Mini-Grid in Kenya
A bird’s-eye view of the Kitonyoni, Kenya, village trading center, solar PV canopy and water tank. Local contractors and villagers assembled the 13.5 kW solar plant, battery storage, canopy and mini-grid in one week. It supports 3,000 local residents. | Image credit: GreenBiz

Some national government agencies are making particularly good use of all the new data, analytics, management and reporting features of Odyssey’s platform, McAteer noted. That bodes well in terms of their individual and collective ability to develop nationwide renewable mini-grid and integrated energy resource plans and implement them.

Nigeria’s Rural Electrification Agency, for instance, has carried out a nationwide, geospatial energy-resources mapping project. The agency is adding to the prospective value of that by conducting community surveys that add to the breadth and depth of the data available. “They are using that really well to scale the mini-grid market,” McAteer said.

“They’re one of the most data-focused agencies out there, and they’re doing really great things with that...It’s really interesting to see the work they’re doing with geospatial mapping, for instance, to determine which technologies make the most sense where. I think we’ll see this getting better and better,” McAteer said. comment↓

* Cover image credit: GreenBiz


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