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Mini-grids and off-grid investment crucial for energy access in Africa (downtoearth,)

Majority of Africa’s population still lives without electricity or connection to the grid. As a way to pull them out of darkness, a new report released by Africa Progress Panel (APP) advocates for investments in mini-grid and off-grid connections.

Almost two-thirds of Africa’s population or 620 million people do not have access to electricity, and unless the electrification rate increases, another 45 million individuals will be added to this by 2030. The continent is not just mired with lack of access, but also a deficit of power, the report says. To give a scale of difference, the average American consumes over 13,000 kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity a year and the average European somewhat less. The average African (excluding South Africa) uses just 160kWh.

While it seems logical to focus on big projects such as large dams and power pools that will scale up national and regional infrastructure to solve the energy crisis, these projects are expensive, complex and slow to implement, particularly in rural areas, highlights the APP report. As the costs of renewable energy sources fall, Africa should leapfrog into a new era of power generation similar to its advancement in telecommunication, it suggests.

Using off-grid technology will be crucial for energy access in the continent, the report marks. Off-grid solar photovoltaic (PV) systems are now the most economical sources of electricity for more than one-third of the African population who lack access to electricity, the report argues. It says that most Africans live off the grid or with unreliable grid access.

While post popular off-grid products are solar lanterns and mobile chargers, higher-end products like solar home systems are gaining popularity in the dynamic market. Solar power also reduces the economic burden of energy on the poor. Comparing costs, the report says, high-priced and low quality energy from candles, batteries and kerosene can be replaced with renewable sources.

Off-grid solar can also be used to power farms and small enterprises, as per the report, nearly 50 per cent of which identify inadequate access to electricity and poor quality of supply as serious constraints to production.

Grid-based electrification in the continent is slow, and the report suggests mini-grids to supplement centralised supply. Mini-grids comprise of an electricity generator and a distribution network that can cater to several users, such as households and businesses. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that 140 million people in Africa will gain access to electricity through mini-grids, yet unlike off-grid solutions, the promotion of mini-grids appears to lag.

As per the report, they can provide electricity in rural and remote areas, where populations are dispersed and per capita electricity consumption is low, at much lower cost than central grid extension. They require smaller capital investment than grid expansion, making it easier to secure finance.

The report also asks for policy reforms for quicker electrification and investment in this multi-layered approach.

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