Powering Africa: mini grid style

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Electricity form’s the life blood of any modern day economy and is one of mankind’s major innovations that has catapulted the development of humanity in terms of improving the lives of billions of people around the world. Although electricity was initially discovered in the early 1800’s and the first power station built in 1882 in the US, much of the world is still without Electricity. This can be classified as energy poverty and it’s estimated that 1.3 billion people worldwide have no access to electricity. This especially rings true for Africa where 57% of the population don’t have access to the electrical grid.

In Africa investment in infrastructure has always lagged the developed world, and this is especially true when it comes to investment in electricity generation. Africa is a large continent with majority of the population living in rural areas. Power supply is also sporadic in terms of availability with a high degree of power cuts lasting hours at a time. The challenge up to now has been connecting remote regions to the grid, the capital required for these types of investments are large along with project lead times. The majority of the time these projects are driven by governments who need to source the funding and go through lengthy processes to get projects approved and delivered. In fact, new connections to the mains power grid do not result in a profit for the utilities companies. as the cost of expanding the grid is high and household usage is low. This is the case in Uganda. 

With renewable energy technology becoming more mainstream and cost effective, the concept of micro grids or mini grids as a solution to rural areas in Africa is rapidly becoming a viable solution. A mini or micro grid is basically a decentralised small scale power plant providing electricity to small communities or commercial operations such as mines. These micro grids can be powered through renewable energy such as wind, solar or hydro power. Hybrid systems are even now available incorporating diesel generators and RE technology together with energy storage options. A fair amount of planning and strategy goes into selecting appropriate sites for mini grids and selecting the right technology. As data isn’t always available on these remote regions, GIS or Geographic Information Systems becomes a valuable asset. Using a GIS methodology approach it’s possible to use specifically designed software with a vast array of local geographical information. This geographical information can assist micro grid project developers in determining which area’s to target and the type of technology makeup to include. Information such as spatial patterns, solar irradiation levels, average annual wind speeds, access to water ways for hydropower are all available. Even the distance from the rural area to the closest town can assist in determining the viability of transporting diesel for generators from a cost perspective.

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GIS software forms a valuable part of the project developers set of tools in determining the right micro grid solution and location. This also assists the project developer in reducing project planning costs and will go a long way in the roll out of micro grids across Africa.