Innovating in the management of decentralized electric services in West Africa

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Optimum networks configuration for the selected criteria. Source: Pérez-Fortes, M. et al. (2012)

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Traditional cooking, Ghana (2013). Source: EScGD

Mini-grids are gradually being mainstreamed as a fix toward access to electricity services across sub-Saharan Africa. The process has been boosted by technological breakthroughs as well as by higher awareness about the relevance of proper management architectures, and is providing the stepping stone from which funding for decentralized rural electrification is growing. The dismal condition of electrification across West Africa, for instance, reflects the fact that centralized generation has so far failed to deliver lighting, cooling and cooking services outside towns. Even in Ghana, which features an impressive 72 per cent electrification rate, large dams and high-voltage transmission grids have been deployed to the advantage of industries and urban dwellers. Rural areas, by contrast, have been largely bypassed, due mostly to the lack of political will; the problem is compounded by low monetary incomes, limited educational levels and challenges to access information. The chief constraints, however, are not technical, but stem from institutions that are insufficiently coordinated and rarely plan for the long term. Hence the need for fresh innovative approaches.

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Village assembly and official launch at Nassian and Sominasé, Cote d’Ivoire (2012). Source: Azimut 360

Amongst those fresh approaches is the Energy for All 2030 project, funded by the European Union, that convened EScGD and three other European partners to explore cost-effective and environmentally friendly decentralized technical solutions to accessing electricity services. The project was outlined upon a unique twofold approach: 1) the need to identify the roles and responsibilities required to set up and operate mini-grids; and 2) a will to explore the factors that shape their financial, social and environmental sustainability. Three years after its kick-off, the project has unveiled the existence of inevitable trade-offs between social development, organizational empowerment, technical reliability, and economic viability. It has also unearthed the intricacies associated to harmonizing the diverging roles and responsibilities of the up to 17 actors involved in developing gasifier-fed electric mini-grids. And, most important, it has strengthened our belief that technical fixes must be capable of fulfilling both social needs and productive uses.

A mixed approach is therefore crucial, yet proper management architectures and methodologies are decisive, too. In our case, the latter have ranged from ex-ante project assessment – e.g. the Levelized Cost of Energy (LCOE) underpinning our interventions – to analysing biomass supply chains using multi-objective mixed integer linear programming in rural Ghana. The analysis of supply chains revealed, for instance, that financial viability is enhanced if a certain degree of centralization is adopted in the pre-treatment of biomass. Similarly, the use of project assessment methodology has reinforced out confidence in concepts such as Pareto Frontiers. Equipped with that tool, we have improved to state-of-the-art methods maximizing Net Present Value and social return, as well minimizing environmental impacts, in rural electrification projects.

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A meeting with Seneso’s community elders, Ghana (2013). Source: EScGD

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Photovoltaic panel, Ghana (2006). Source: EScGD

Those projects have resulted in the setting up of a number of mini-grids in Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire – often built around Multi-Functional Platforms (MFP). In Ghana, EScGD joined a consortium of the Kumasi Institute of Technology, and the Energy Centre of the Kwame Nkrumah University of Science and Technology to carry out a feasibility study about using agricultural residues to run a 24h electric mini-grid in 5 MFP communities. As part of the project, from May to November 2013 120 households and 89 farmers were interviewed. For each community, researchers characterized maximum expenditure per household as well as monthly crop residue production, and characterized the potential for electric production and its feasibility. The results single out at least one community with a positive financial evaluation, even without full subsidies for upfront investment costs. Likewise, in Côte d’Ivoire we have been involved in a scheme to electrify seven rural communities. In this case, a set of management practices have proved crucial: involving users and experienced local partners, enacting a well-planned Training Plan, designing a simple and adapted mini-grid, and employing smart meters to avoid overconsumption and facilitate self-management.

The insights gained from our hands-on work in West Africa have also reached the carpeted rooms where policymakers, multilateral institutions and civil society organizations meet. Thus, on June 2013 we united forces with Practical Action to lobby Members of the European Parliament toward pushing decentralized electric services higher in the development agenda of the European Union. Our unique mix of practical efforts and research attest to what can be achieved through committed partnerships built around innovative solutions.


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