The International Energy Agency expects mini-grids and stand-alone off-grid systems will be crucial in the drive to improve electricity supply in sub-Saharan Africa. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES
The International Energy Agency expects mini-grids and stand-alone off-grid systems will be crucial in the drive to improve electricity supply in sub-Saharan Africa. Picture: SUNDAY TIMES

Localised electricity networks, which typically harness power from renewables to supply communities, towns or rural areas, could be the answer to SA’s energy supply crisis, experts say.

These networks, which are usually referred to as mini-grids, have become increasingly important on the continent and are being built at a rapid rate with more than 2,000 such grids across Africa.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has projected that the mini-grids and stand-alone off-grid systems will be crucial in the drive to improve electricity supply to many rural areas in sub-Saharan Africa countries that are unable to tap into national grids.

“Whole communities and towns can become 100% energy independent,” said Dr Sam Duby, Africa director for TFE Energy and mini-grid expert. “Mini grids could very quickly sort out a lot of the biggest challenges that SA is having with its energy supply at the moment,” he said.

 

Whole communities and towns can become 100% energy independent
Dr Sam Duby

Eskom, the troubled state-owned power utility that supplies virtually all of SA’s energy, has struggled to meet demand largely due to maintenance issues and design flaws at its new coal power stations, Medupi and Kusile. It had to resort to stage four load-shedding a few weeks ago, a move which heightened worries over SA’s already ailing economy.

Duby called for deregulation of the energy market, which would allow people to produce and sell power, saying such a move would “revolutionise” the energy landscape in SA.

“Technically it wouldn’t be a difficult or complex thing to do; there are plenty of precedents around the world where it has worked really well,” said Duby.

People are waking up to the fact that mini-grids are the only realistic solution for remote and rural electrification, he said.

He said the falling costs of technology makes mini-grids increasingly viable.  

“Slowly the regulation side is easing, and as a result, the sector is growing. This is also echoed by an increase in investment, both from the donor community as well as the private community. Mini-grids are hugely important now and ever more so going forward.”

However, Duby said the biggest challenge is SA’s regulated energy market.

“If we had more of a deregulated market and people were allowed to build their own power sources, whether it is a vineyard with solar panels on the roof, and to feed any surplus into the grid, you would have these decentralised nodes of generation, all of which were feeding into the grid. This means we wouldn’t be so reliant on what currently are just a few sources of energy.

“So whole communities and towns could become 100% energy independent. Creating a market for independently produced energy would also very quickly incentivise and unlock investment into the space. As more projects are built and generation capacity added, you would also very quickly get more system resilience. Blackouts really could be a thing of the past,” said Duby.

According to Nicolette Pombo-van Zyl, editor of ESI Africa, an energy industry journal, SA’s national grid when operating optimally supplies electricity access to about 85% of the population.

“Through the implementation of mini-grids, which are essentially a smaller version of the main grid, the country can reach an enviable 100% energy access rate,” said Pombo-van Zyl.

“The idea is not to go off grid but to develop mini-grids that tie into the main grid. Regulation and policy must be amended to accommodate this transition, which is feasible for both rural electrification projects and for municipalities and metropolitans to attract business development and a rising middle class through the offer of reliable and affordable power. A mini-grid model working in conjunction with the national grid is a workable future for SA outh Africa,” she said.

phakathib@businesslive.co.za