ENERGY REVOLUTION AFRICA INTERVIEW: “What invigorates us about this work is the livelihood transformation that we witness daily in the lives of beneficiaries as a result of the off-grid initiatives undertaken”

1.    Tell us a bit about the work you do in the Renewable Energy space. What about this work most invigorates and inspires you?
Currently we are coordinating and promoting innovative renewable energy solutions in Ghana on behalf of the Government of Ghana. Interventions span off-grid standalone installations for public, private and commercial establishments, mini-grids for island communities, utility scale RETs, policies and strategies and raising funds for key public sector led projects.

What invigorates us about this work is the livelihood transformation in the areas of education, health, entertainment, information and economic empowerment that we witness daily in the lives of beneficiaries as a result of the off-grid initiatives undertaken. In addition, we are inspired by the opportunities and order that is created through the policies that we help create. Key achievements on the policy and law side include mini-grid policy, the Renewable Energy Act 2011, Act 832, and Feed-in-Tariff Policy rate setting instruments amongst others. 

2.    Can you briefly explain what makes the GEDAP mini-grid projects noteworthy?
The GEDAP Mini-grid projects in Ghana are island based mini-grid systems providing 24/7 electricity supply for five communities. These projects are community based and its benefits go beyond just the provision of electricity for households and businesses. Mini-grids when well developed as in the case of the GEDAP mini-grid project provide a more sustainable, permanent and efficient way of electrifying off-grid communities in the long term. The GEDAP mini-grid project incorporates an Energy Daily allowance pre-paid mechanism which ensures no beneficiary defaults and expected incomes can be well projected.

3.    What are your views on the potential of small, off-grid projects as the most effective way to expand access to electricity in Africa where energy poverty is vast and many people live in remote locations?
Most of Africa’s population without energy access resides in remote communities far from the grid and in most of these communities the houses are separated from each other by farm lands making small off-grid projects most effective. In addition, in some countries like Ghana, some of the population without energy access live on islands and require huge investments to electrify them by the grid. In these cases off-grid projects including mini-grid projects provide a more effective alternative.  However, in some cases, off-grid solutions just provide the most basic modern energy service. Thus, such interventions do not provide the needed impetus to unlock tangible socioeconomic developments in the off-grid communities.
 
4. Can you provide statistics or facts on the cost saving, environmental positives and increased reliability of off-grid products in comparison to diesel and kerosene power sources?
Off-grid products including lanterns have been found to have a payback period of between six months to 0ne year in most cases and provide cost savings of between 35 to 60% in the long run. With prices of off-grid projects generally on a decrease while prices of kerosene and diesel are on an increase in most African countries the opportunity for cost savings is even improved. Apart from the cost saving, kerosene is also dangerous to the user’s health. The fine particles in kerosene fumes are known to cause chronic pulmonary disease whilst the burning of kerosene also produces carbon-dioxide emissions that also change our climate. New versions of off-grid products are generally very robust, with longer lasting battery lives and they offer warranties up to five years while the kerosene lantern technology is more than a century old and is prone to smoking wicks and glass cracks. Off-grid products also generally provide more reliable uninterrupted power supply compared to diesel or kerosene power sources due to improvements in battery and other energy management technologies. 

5.    What are your views on the contribution that off-grid solar solutions are likely to make to economic growth in Africa over the next decade.
With the advancements in technology in terms of longer battery life, more robust designs and energy efficiency in addition to reduction in prices, off-grid solar is expected to make significant contributions to economic growth in Africa. It is expected that small businesses (cold stores, corn mills, etc.) running on off-grid solar solutions will be created in many rural remote communities across Africa. One area that off-grid solar is expected to make significant contribution to economic growth is the area of agricultural irrigation. Off-grid solar powered irrigation activities will surely lead to significant growth in agriculture which is an important economic activity in Africa. 

5. Could you comment or expand on some of the developments that have helped off-grid systems to fill the gap in terms of lack of access to the grid in Africa?
The cost of off-grid system components has significantly reduced over the years and this has played a key role in advancing the push for off-grid renewable energy solutions. The poorest of Africans live in non-electrified communities and affordability is a major issue when deciding on purchases. 

In addition to the reduced cost, innovative models including pay-as-you-go models have made off-grid solutions more affordable. In fishing communities, residents earn on a regular basis small amounts that allow them to afford these systems without them seeing it as a burden. 

Energy saving devices like LED lamps have significantly improved the efficiency of the systems and more appliances can be powered by the same solar module size. A 50W system a decade ago could power only 5 CFL bulbs. With the introduction of energy saving devices, a 50W system can power over 10 bulbs and a 16 inch LED TV. 

6. How can the challenges of a shortage of finance in solar, slow production of solar devices, and hesitation from policymakers regarding solar (and/or other renewable energy sources, like hydro and wind power) be dealt with? 
We can deal with the shortage of finance in solar by sensitizing senior staff in financial institutions in Africa on the impact and opportunities in financing solar in their catchment areas. Most decision making staff of financial institutions in Africa have very limited or no knowledge on the technology, impact and opportunities available in financing solar off-grid projects. The non-traditional financing sector should also be encouraged to develop schemes to support the solar industry.

More funding should be channeled into improving research into production techniques on the continent and Governments should support investors in these areas with attractive tax packages. Production of solar devices must be localized and the desired market created for solar energy systems. 

Most policy makers are hesitant about renewable energy because they have not been well exposed and sensitized on the impacts that renewable energy has made in other countries. Policy makers should be exposed to the impacts of renewable energy in other countries through study tours, documentaries and workshops.