Not-for-profits could power more villages with nano grids

Intasave, a not-for-profit and environmental enterprise is planning to use scalable nanogrid solar power systems to bring clean, reliable and affordable power to about 500 communities and 250,000 people in Kenya, South Africa and Mozambique within three years. After raising the initial US$100,000 through crowdfunding, construction of the hubs is already underway in villages in Kenya.

This one project could exemplify how non-for-profits can succeed in bringing more power to rural communities in developing countries, to enter a field or market that is largely populated by private and governmental organizations. 

Building on household surveys, the company found that the best way would be to work with clusters of 50 homes to install a separate mini grid power system for each community. In addition to helping supply power to rural community, the system will generate clean power thus cut emissions, and reduce costs of energy in the community.

Their model is known as Solar Nano Grid (SONG). Each SONG comprises of a small grid network and central solar hub that produces 3-5kW of inverter-less DC current output. Each SONG can typically serve around 50 households at 20 watts per hour per household – enough to light up 3 bulbs and power a phone charger, for example. The small grid connects many homes with each hub serving households as far as 600 meters from it.

Diagram: Solar Nano Grid 

However, the Intasave module is scalable and modular, meaning that the existing nano-grids can then be interconnected with new ones or existing others to form a larger, more powerful system and supply power to more people in a community or village. This is achieved by adding more new SONGS and more photovoltaic (PV) solar panels. Villagers can also charge and recharge their portable home-use batteries at the solar hub.

A proportion of the power generated from the SONGs solar hub can be effectively utilized to support small commercial, social or agro-industrial needs, such as water pumps, refrigeration units and egg incubators, and other micro-enterprises such as hair salons, mobile phone charging businesses, and solar mills.

"These systems could supply enough electricity for each household’s needs as well as generate an income for the community, reducing the cost of energy for each family," said Dr. Ed Brown, Loughborough University in England, one of the partners in the project.  

The company chose Kenya for the fact that many people live in off-grid rural areas that are not viable for larger solar installations, due to increased demand for power in particular alternative power (as opposed to use of kerosene and firewood, for example) in rural areas, coupled with the fact that the country receives some of the global highest insolation around the year. In one of the villages where it is hoping to install the system, rural electrification is as low as 40%.  

"An average of 5kWh/m²/day is available throughout the country, which is a significant resource to draw on," said ...  "Indeed, Kenya’s annual averages for available solar energy are some of the highest in the world."

SONGs are ideally suited for remote rural areas where there is no access to grid electricity simply because of the cost of bringing it to the location. Nano-grids are a viable financial option for households in these areas, particularly as climate change increasingly rules out the use of fossil fuels according to the Senior Project Officer, INTASAVE Africa, James Mwangi.

The first two SONGS are already being installed in the Lemolo B and Echareria villages of Western Kenya with one hub in Echareria Village recently complete.The funds will also support three other songs in the country that is their main concentration. In addition to engaging local tradesmen and community members to build and install related equipment, each community will have two community volunteers who will learn and help micro-enterprises and other users optimize on the benefits of SONGS. The company will also establish a Village Energy Committee (VEC) to manage the SONG for smooth running of operations.

The project will empower the community energy-wise by enhancing their control over the resource and creating room for further developments within that community, according to one elder and Pastor in the Echareria village where the project is underway.

The company is also working with a number of local communities, national and regional partners to identify several locations for the SONGS using a range of technical, geographical, socio-economic, and livelihood criteria. To implement the program and supply more clean power to villages, the company is running a scalable energy funding program that is structured in a number of tranches and will raise a combination of equity, debt (senior and mezzanine). Members of the community can also contribute for as little as $10 to help implementation.

The project is funded by the UK Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the UK Department for International Development and the UK Department for Energy and Climate Change. It is being conducted by researchers from Loughborough University (UK), INTASAVE (Kenya) and the International University (Bangladesh), together with colleagues from the University of Nottingham (UK) and Oxford University (UK).