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Off-grid solar panels electrify sub-Saharan Africa

Solar PV

There are 600M people without access to electricity in sub-Saharan Africa. Off-grid solar panels might be one answer to electrifying the region.

The 600M people without electricity represent 70% of the region’s population, according to the Department for International Development. 

In October 2015 the department launched a campaign called Energy Africa to help Africa achieve universal energy access by 2030.

Not only do sub-Saharan Africans face a shortfall in electricity production – there is a higher price to pay for the electricity they do use.

A price adjusted comparison by the department showed that the poorest people in the region pay 80 times more for electricity than customers in the UK. 

The department believes solar power is the answer, and one that accords with the United Nation’s Global Goal 7 to deliver market-based off-grid electricity.

BBOX, a Chiswick-based solar panel manufacturer, has been building off-grid solar panel infrastructure in Africa since 2010.

“We aim to electrify 20M people (4M households) by the end of 2020. We will do this by expanding in East Africa and then globally,” Christopher Baker-Brian, co-founder and chief technology officer at BBOXX, told New Civil Engineer.

The company has installed 70,000 systems so far, which represents 2MW of solar power. 

Why is the time right for off-grid solar panels?

  • The dramatic fall in the price of solar photovoltaic panels
  • Improvements in battery technology
  • More efficient appliances, such as LED lights
  • The spread of mobile payment systems enable energy access for the poorest through micro pay-as-you-go.

[Source: Energy Africa]

“Customers pay monthly in advance, using mobile money services for the product. Once a payment is made, the product is switched on for the next month remotely,” said Baker-Brian.

“Solar panels tend to have a life expectancy of [more than] 15 years. The more sensitive area is the batteries, which typically last around three years. We provide remote monitoring of the units which allows us to know when products are having issues and provide prompt service to the customer.”

“As well as remotely disabling the product we can also detect how the system is performing and intervene if service is required, or advise them on usage. This ensures customers get the best possible service for their system and always have ‘light every night’. This removes one of the traditional complaints about off-grid systems that they are not reliable enough and service is not provided for them,” he added.

BBOX has no government support, although governments are considering including off-grid electrification in national targets, according to Baker-Brian. 

“Our products are genuinely affordable for the end customer in a rural village, therefore subsidies are not needed,” he said. 

Energy Africa’s approach is more than a simple subsidy. It aims to increase solar power usage through addressing market failures that prevent firms from raising capital, and changing policy and regulatory barriers to household energy access.

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