African countries are increasingly looking towards minigrids to provide people living in remote areas access to electricity.
Government officials from Ghana, Uganda and Nigeria have told delegates at the African Utility Week, in Cape Town, this week, that minigrids are the way to go for many communities, many of them cut off from the mainland.
Some of the projects are still in the pilot stage, but the prospects are very encouraging.
In Ghana, the plan is to link a significant number of island and lakeside communities, with populations of between 500 and 2 000, to a minigrid. In these areas, a grid extension, using submarine cables, is not feasible. A minigrid electrification system has been identified as both technically and economically feasible.
A minigrid is an isolated or independent electricity supply system with power generation facilities. It typically uses one or a combination of renewable-energy technologies, from wind and solar photovoltaic (PV) to hydropower and biomass.
Ghana Ministry of Power director and project coordinator Andrew Tonto Barfour said 83% of the country’s population had access to electricity.
Ghana is piloting minigrids in a bid to develop a sustainable business model that ensures a reliable 24 hours of renewable energy-based electricity supply at an affordable cost. The pilot projects are drawing mostly from solar PV panels of 250 W each. Diesel is on standby as a back-up, but so far it has not had to be used.
Consumers pay for the electricity through prepaid options, with tariffs similar to that of the national grid for residential and nonresidential connections.
Communities in Ghana have been included in the roll-out. Community members have formed community energy management committees in all communities and manage the systems themselves.
“People have really embraced the systems. Acceptability is high,” said Barfour.
In Uganda, where 82% of people live in rural areas, minigrids are an increasingly favourable option. Most people in rural areas in Uganda do not have access to electricity, with only 16% of people living in Uganda connected to the grid.
Minigrids are especially being considered for the islands on Lake Victoria, where 100 000 people live. In these areas, private sector companies have been requested to provide a business plan with proposed targets, a financial model and an environmental assessment. The Ugandan government is looking to tender to the private sector for development, with affordable tariffs being a key factor. Two pilot projects with 30 minigrids will be implemented this year.
Government-initiated projects are also on the table. The advantage of these is that the government can choose to consolidate these in a geographical area, so that they benefit from scale and reduced operational costs. The licensing process is also shortened and streamlined in this way.
“To achieve universal access by 2030, we estimate 33% of the connections will be offgrid,” said Uganda Off-Grid Renewable Energy for the Rural Electrification Agency head Benson Bena.
In Nigeria, where just over half of the population live in rural areas, minigrids are also being considered. Under a programme called “Light-up Nigeria”, two minigrid projects will be commissioned next month.