Solar power: going wireless

Pylons. Nobody really likes them, do they? They’re a bit ugly and you rather wish they weren’t there, ruining the view. Let’s be honest, power grid infrastructure is not pretty but there might soon be a case to do away with it, albeit for slightly better reasons than aesthetics.

Traditionally, the way to get power to large numbers of people has been to build more power plants, extending the transmission and distribution networks, and facilitating grid connections. And it remains true that this conventional system is the backbone of power provision in most countries but is it the way of the future?

In most developed countries, rates of electrification are extremely high, usually above 99% even in rural areas. In developing countries however, this number can be surprisingly low. 15% in Kenya, for example, dropping to only 5% in rural parts of the country. This means that a significant majority of the population live without access to grid electricity and are still dependent on polluting fuels such as diesel and kerosene, often expensive and time-consuming to acquire.

The challenge is to find the most effective and efficient way to get power to areas that currently go without.

Let’s think about phones for a moment. As with electricity and lighting, access to communication is seen as one of the key indicators of development. Similar to power, the traditional way of connecting homes and businesses via phone was to construct a huge amount of infrastructure dependent on thousands of miles of cable. But this is no longer the case, or at least not to the same extent, and especially not in developing countries.

With the advent of mobile phones came a reduced need for conventional landline infrastructure. In developed countries where the equipment was already in place, no one was going to go tearing up switching stations or telephone poles but the situation was a little different in countries where such infrastructure did not already exist. Communication analysts now predict that some developing countries will skip building the traditional phone network altogether because mobile is already so prolific and affordable. Whole countries are going wireless.

So why not do the same with power?

It used to be the case that on-site renewable power generation was unreliable, intermittent, and therefore not a realistic alternative to grid electricity or diesel generators. Today, however, there is a growing range of innovative renewable technologies that not only provide reliable power, but can compete with grid electricity on cost.

Great leaps in the efficiency of photovoltaic (PV) technology mean that the levelised cost of energy (LCOE) for African utility projects ranged between $0.13-0.26 per kilowatt-hour (/kWh) in 2013 and 2014, with utility-scale PV in South Africa reaching as low as $0.075/kWh. More recently, Zambia is set to sell solar power for as little as $0.062/kWh following the approval of two large scale PV projects as part of the World Bank’s ‘Scaling Solar’ programme.

With continued improvements in efficiency, and costs continuing to fall, the business case for adopting solar PV starts to look irresistible in areas with high levels of solar irradiance. These areas are largely concentrated between the Tropics, which is also where the majority of the world’s developing countries are located.

Companies like M-Kopa and BBOXX have cottoned on to this opportunity, both offering domestic, off-grid solar solutions that provide lighting and other electrical benefits to homes in East Africa. Buffalo Grid is using its solar-powered technology to power mobile phones in developing countries, offering both a service to end customers as well as a renewable business opportunity to kiosk owners.

This is all before we even think about alternative micro technologies such as small wind turbines. We should also not forget about key enabling technologies such as off-grid storage, but more on that in my next blog…





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