CrossBoundary Energy, The Rockefeller Foundation Launch Sub-Saharan Africa Mini-Grid Innovation Lab, R&D Fund

CrossBoundary Energy and The Rockefeller Foundation on April 24 launched the Mini-Grid Innovation Lab for Sub-Saharan Africa, an R&D fund that aims to develop and deploy innovative, new business models for community-based, “green” energy systems and services that can accelerate sustainable, rural electrification region-wide more efficiently and at lower cost.

The Mini-Grid Innovation Lab estimates that mini-grids can provide affordable, reliable, resilient and environmentally friendly electricity to at least 100 million of the 600 million Sub-Saharan Africans that reportedly lack utility grid access. That amounts to an $11 billion market opportunity that project partners say will grow with time.

The initiative brings together an impressive list of project partners in an effort to develop and bring innovative mini-grid business models to the fore of prospective sustainable energy and development solutions and attract investment. In addition to CrossBoundary Energy and The Rockefeller Foundation, the Lab includes more than 15 mini-grid developers across Africa, the recently launched African Mini-Grid Developers Association (AMDA), Energy4Impact, Duke University, Carnegie Mellon University, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and Power For All.

A data-driven, iterative approach to African mini-grid innovation

Mini-grids are far more reliable than regional utility grids – downtime of 2% as compared to 53% for main grids – the Sub-Saharan Africa Mini-Grid Innovation Lab highlights.

Renewable energy mini-grids have been deployed across the region, but their number and impact, if not their prospective scope and scale, pales as compared to uptake of off-grid, mobile pay-go home solar energy kits, products and services, which have been growing by leaps and bounds region-wide and beyond in recent years.

Tanzanian Woman Holds Up a Pay-As-You-Go Solar Device
Tanzanian woman holds up a pay-as-you-go solar device. | Credit: Flickr @Angaza

Off-grid mini-grids that make use of the same solar, other local, renewable energy resources and intelligent, network-connected energy storage solutions can make for a smarter, larger scale, more efficient, and hence less costly, “green” energy infrastructure, project partners believe. As explained in a press release:

[T]he Lab will test business solutions for mini-grids based in Africa so that they can provide more power, to more people, at less cost. In doing so, it aims to demonstrate to governments, policy makers, investors and donors that mini grids can play a key role in connecting 600 million people in Africa without power.

Drilling down into the Lab’s R&D approach: “The Lab takes a data-driven, iterative testing approach to put numbers to the questions that governments, donors, and investors need answers to,” Gabriel Davies, head of energy access at CrossBoundary, elaborated. “By partnering with developers, who are closest to the daily challenges of providing power to rural customers, we can answer these questions with real world data.”

The following feature prominently among the question the Lab aims to answer:

  • Do mini-grids deliver power to the standard of the main grid?
  • Do mini-grid customers use energy to increase their income?
  • How do mini-grids integrate with the main grid?

Accelerating sustainable, rural Africa electrification

There are other issues the Lab will work to resolve over the near-term. Digging deeper into the subject of how mini-grids can best be integrated with utility grids, how household and how business energy use may change when delivered by mini-grids given electricity rates are on par with those for main utility grids.

Commensurate with the scale and scope of resolving these issues the Lab brings a lot in the way of leading edge digital computing and communications technology to bear. Among early findings based on analysis of millions of data points from customer smart meters provided by Lab mini-grid developers, the Lab found that rural mini-grids provide far more reliable power to customers. Downtime amounted to 2 percent on average during evening hours. That compares to 53 percent for urban grid customers in Dar es Salaam Tanzania.

Networking among like-minded organizations across the private and public sectors is another of the Lab’s main objectives. That includes working with governments, donors, academia, non-profits and other partners to support mini-grids capable of deliver affordable, reliable power to rural households and businesses, according to the Lab.

“The ultimate goal of this effort is to equip governments, investors and developers to dramatically accelerate rural electrification in an integrated manner, unlocking new economic opportunities for millions of households,” stated Ashvin Dayal, Rockefeller Foundation Associate Vice President and Managing Director, Smart Power.

Smart Power for Rural Development by The Rockefeller Foundation
Credit: The Rockefeller Foundation

Matt Tilleard, Managing Partner, CrossBoundary Energy, concluded, “We’re launching the Mini-Grid Innovation Lab at a time where when momentum is building for the sector,” concluded Matt Tilleard, CrossBoundary Group managing partner.

“Achieving the Lab’s objectives could potentially accelerate the ability of mini-grids to provide power to millions of people in Africa and deliver on SDG7 [UN Sustainable Development Goal 7 – Achieving universal, sustainable energy access for all]. We are especially proud to partner with The Rockefeller Foundation, whose interests are aligned with ours, to see this through.”

Africa’s first commercial-industrial solar power project fund

A financier of solar energy systems, CrossBoundary Energy bills itself as “Africa’s first dedicated fund for Commercial and Industrial solar.” The company signed what it deems a landmark deal to install and operate a 600 kilowatt-peak (kWp) solar power plant for Unilever Tea in Kericho, Kenya.

Unilever Tea Sustainability Development
Credit: SlideShare @CSCP

The solar power PPA marks Unilever Tea’s first solar power purchase agreement (PPA) in Africa, according to the project partners. Furthermore, the Kericho solar power plant is expected to yield substantial savings on power costs and reduce carbon emissions by over 10,000 metric tons over its 30-year lifetime. Expected to come online in mid-2018, CrossBoundary will bill Unilever monthly for the electricity delivered. CrossBoundary is to finance and operate the plant for 15 years.

Working from the grass roots level on up, the US African Development Foundation (USADF) works with governments, multilateral development banks and agencies, African commercial banks, international venture capital investors, solar and clean tech entrepreneurs and sustainable energy programs, such as the USAID-led Power Africa initiative, to develop sustainable energy and sustainable development projects and cultivate a solar and sustainable energy industry ecosystem across the African continent. That work includes developing solar mini-grids in rural areas in Sub-Saharan African countries.

Anchor tenants for community solar energy services

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Having a commercial or industrial company willing and able to off-take a substantial amount of energy produced by a solar mini-grid over the long term is a critical facet of successful solar mini-grid development, explained Tom Coogan, Power Africa and Region III director for USADF. Serving as anchor tenants, “commercial or industrial customers – a solar-powered grain mill owner, an irrigation water pumping system owner or agricultural refrigeration system operator, for example – really help project developers implement the solar mini-grid business model,” Coogan told Solar Magazine.

USADF is helping finance and build two solar grain mills in Nigeria, for example. It’s doing the same for a solar-agricultural refrigeration system that will help improve the lives and livelihoods of smallholder farmers in Rwanda. Helping develop solar-powered agricultural, irrigation water pumping systems is another facet of projects under the umbrella of what USADF has dubbed the Solar-Agricultural Nexus, Coogan explained.

Solar-Powered Water Irrigation in Africa

Commercial-industrial solar mini-grid developers and owner/operators can upscale their installations to provide residential solar energy services with a community agricultural, other commercial, or industrial anchor tenant in place, Coogan pointed out.

They can also bring the benefits of local Internet and wireless telecoms services to off-grid, rural communities. “Bringing [information and communications network] connectivity to communities is another major benefit and trend that’s being talked about more and more, and one we’re working on ourselves,” he concluded. comment

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