3 innovations that could drive energy revolution in Africa

2017-03-24 11:58 - Sean Moolman
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Sean Moolman, PowerOptimal

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A couple of decades ago we witnessed the beginning of Africa’s astounding mobile revolution.  

Access to affordable, reliable and independent telecommunications systems allowed Africans to leapfrog the (usually) State-run, expensive and unreliable (or even completely absent) landline telecommunications infrastructure, leading to massive growth in the market and hundreds of millions of connected people.  

The knock-on effect has been undeniable. Similarly, the continent’s energy revolution is seeing rapid progress in and falling cost of distributed generation, microgrids, renewables and energy storage that will enable Africans and African communities to leapfrog the old national energy grid infrastructure and be at the forefront of new energy technology penetration (and innovative financing models are accelerating this change).

These developments will result in more reliable and affordable energy, economic growth and improved quality of life.

Developed countries have very large amounts of capital vested in existing infrastructure that need to give a return to their investors.

Furthermore, environmental concerns and a small change in the price of energy are not always big enough incentives to change for the average developed country energy customer.

But for the over 600 million people in Africa without any electricity, going from zero to some level of access can be life-changing. 

Robert Cormia (who advocates for the ‘Electron Economy’) believes that the energy revolution is going to start small and local, in individual homes and businesses, and grow from there into microgrids, which will later be connected to one another and then to a ‘new’ national grid – and it’s incredibly empowering to see that the energy revolution can start at home and be in the hands of the everyday person.

The future of energy will look like the evolution of the Internet - a network of energy generation, storage and consumption that is decentralised, parallel and multi-directional, not just linear and one-directional like the national grids of the past. 

And the interesting thing is that, whilst the internet is at times incredibly messy and organic, it is actually very robust and self-healing, properties that will be very beneficial for energy networks.

The challenge is to make renewable energy solutions for homes affordable, because when the choice is between survival and environmental concerns, survival will always win.

So we have to work towards making renewable energy the most cost-effective and easy-to-adopt option.

With that in mind here are some exciting innovations that are worth keeping an eye on:

1. Accessible and affordable financing for solar power:

Africa is known for its mobile payment innovations, and innovative companies like M KOPA have built on this to bring solar power to hundreds of thousands of homes without power in East Africa, through pioneering financing models. 

The customers pay a small deposit and then pay off the rest of the kit over a year in 360 daily installments using mobile money transfers.

The daily payment model substantially increased accessibility and affordability.

The box kit consists of a solar panel, multi-device charger, lights, radio and a pay-as-you-go SIM card. 

This model has brought electricity to over 400 000 homes.

2. Blockchain technology 

Whilst Bitcoin is currently the most visible and well-known implementation of blockchain technology, the blockchain’s potential is far larger.

The future grid will see electricity and information flow in many directions, and accurately accounting for this will be quite a challenge.

The blockchain, which allows for peer-to-peer energy micro transactions and accounting, is an excellent candidate for addressing this challenge.

Think about supply, demand and pricing.

All three of these will fluctuate on a continuous basis.

Ten homes with solar panels might produce excess electricity, and on the other side of the community, five homes would buy this excess electricity from their neighbours.

In the middle of the transaction is a blockchain structure that manages and registers the deals. Automated transacting agents will be developed that will optimise every home’s energy generation, storage, use and electricity cost, and will balance supply and demand across micro, national and international grids.  

As is usually the case with new technologies, there is a lot of hype and buzz around blockchain technology, but in this case it is probably justified.

It will take some years to mature, but many believe that it could represent the future of community-managed power systems, especially in developing countries.

3. Solar PV water heating technology

This technology is directly aimed at supporting the transition to renewables in Africa and works by injecting the direct current electricity produced by solar PV panels directly into standard electric geysers (water heaters) without the need for an inverter, batteries or change in heating elements. 

Combining the rapidly falling cost of solar PV panels with no inverter translates into a very simple and affordable water heating solution.

There are no moving parts apart from electrical switching and this means very low maintenance and long system life.

*Dr Sean Moolman is the co-founder and CEO of PowerOptimal, one of the participants at Energy Revolution Africa, which will be hosted for the first time this year as a co-located event during African Utility Week from 16 to 18 May 2017 at the CTICC. He won the 2016 Innovation Hub Award and will be launching a new solar PV water heating solution at this year’s event.  

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