Pay-as-you-go microgrids seen offering rural electrification alternative

21st April 2017 By: David Oliveira - Creamer Media Staff Writer

Pay-as-you-go solar microgrid solutions, coupled with energy storage, are proving to be a boon for the African communities they power and offer opportunities to entrepreneurs to tap into this growing market.

South Africa has highlighted the potential of this system through the government Green Fund-supported iShack project, which is providing pay-as-you-go solar electricity for residents in the Enkanini informal settlement, in Stellenbosch, in the Western Cape. The project is also creating income for locals through the development franchisees who are trained to install and maintain these solutions, known as iShack agents.

Underwriters Laboratories (UL) energy and power technologies principal engineer and director Ken Boyce highlights that the adoption of microgrids is becoming increasingly popular in Africa’s rural areas.

He adds that one of the most significant advantages of microgrids is the flexibility and scalability of the solutions, which can be customised to power individual households or neighbourhoods.

Coupling pay-as-you-go solar electricity generation with storage technology, such as lithium-ion batteries, significantly improves the effectiveness of solar electricity generation by ensuring access to electricity, even when solar resources are not available.

Boyce points out that the benefits of solar power and energy storage manifest in different ways and scales, depending on the size of the installation and the use of the solution. He adds that the tangible benefits of consumer empowerment and grid support for urban settings differ from those provided through off-grid solutions and electricity resilience in remote areas.

“Utility solutions are very much about supporting the health of the electricity grid, while commercial or residential storage is generally more focused on meeting the particular energy needs of the users,” Boyce says, adding that particular needs of the user will determine factors such as the cost, size and complexity of the storage solution.

“In all cases, however, energy storage can enable the public to obtain benefits from solar power.”

Boyce highlights that batteries are expected to be prime technology for most storage applications in the near future. “In the battery space, there are many technologies in use, such as flow batteries for specialised applications, but we expect lithium chemistries to be the focus going forward.”

However, the growth of the storage market requires the development of local standards to ensure the safety, quality and sustainability. Therefore, UL, in partnership with the Industrial Development Corporation, the National Electrical Manufacturers Association and the National Fire Protection Association, hosted an energy storage standards conformance and technology workshop in Johannesburg earlier this year.

The workshop featured insights on the current state of play by South African experts and also fostered discussions of cross- cutting issues and opportunities for collaborations between the US and South Africa.

Topics covered during the workshop included UL using safety science to support safe and sustainable global deployment of renewables, standards development, and the reliability and durability of energy technologies.