More than 620 million Africans are unable to turn on a lightbulb, charge a cellphone or keep a fridge running. As a result, there's a technological footrace underway to provide electricity to them without burning more fossil fuels.
Africa has become a laboratory of sorts for new kinds of electricity microgrids, nanogrids and other systems that rely on low-cost, renewable energy sources like wind, solar and small-scale hydropower.
"The technologies are getting better and cheaper," said Kevin Watkins, director of the Overseas Development Institute in London and author of a new report on African energy by the Africa Progress Panel, a group headed by Kofi Annan.
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Watkins says that even with the proposed expansion of existing electric power grids in many African nations, there will still be 400 million to 500 million people without power by 2030. In order to close that gap, Watkins and others are pushing for small scale systems that cover several dozen to several thousand people, or even just one family.
"You only have to generate 100 watts to 300 watts, which is sufficient to power a few lightbulbs, a phone charger, a radio or maybe small fridge," said Watkins. "The key issue identified that this is a real market. This isn't an aid story."
Watkins says microgrids, which are small electric systems independent of a national grid, and nanogrids, which are single-household power systems, are taking advantage of cheaper and more efficient lithium batteries, LED bulbs and solar panels.
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"Poor people are already engaged in the energy market," Watkins said. "But they are engaged in least efficient models: they are buying charcoal, flashlights, and candles or spending long hours collecting wood."
The report noted that Africans spent $10 billion each year on energy, often paying 15 to 20 times more per kilowatt hour than families in the United States. Four of five African homes burn wood or other forms of biomass, burning that generates smoke and other fumes that kill 600,000 people each year, the report noted.
In recent years, private groups and government agencies are teaming up to get some of these microgrids off the ground. The U.S. Agency for International Development currently is managing 24 off-grid power projects in six African countries worth $2.4 million.
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The USAID program challenges African companies to come up with locally run programs. The current batch of USAID projects includes five solar systems, three biogas generation projects, and a small hydro-electricity power plant, providing over 10,000 people with access to electricity.
Through a USAID challenge grant announced in July 2015, Kenya's Ambalian Company is installing a wind turbine in one of northern Kenya's rural communities to replace diesel-powered generators used currently to pump water.
Rafode, a local Kenyan microfinance organization, will provide credit to fisherman in the Lake Victoria region to purchase solar lamps, thereby boosting the catch from their traditional nighttime fishing. And in Nigeria, Ajima Farms will develop a major biogas plant to provide electricity to homes and businesses currently living off the grid, according to USAID.
The ODI's Watkins is spearheading a separate program along with several African partners to provide electricity for five million households in five nations within the next five years.
"I do think it's achievable," Watkins said.
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The biggest obstacles are the initial set-up costs for household solar (which are as little as $70 to $90 per system), resistance by local officials who are tied to existing utilities that are both unreliable and corrupt.
"In much of Africa, the state energy utilities are centers of vested interested, corruption and patronage," Watkins said. "If you develop off grid you are bypassing these guys."
Another worry is building robust microgrid that won't have a software glitch or other technical problem a few years down the road, according to Ken Horne, associate director at Navigant Consulting and an expert in microgrid systems.
"If you try to deploy a small microgrid in Africa and it is hundreds of miles away from the nearest pole," Horne said, "the challenge is that you have to operate it very carefully because you don't have a backup."
Not all Western firms are looking to hook up villages or rural cities. Arnaud Henin, president of London-based Gommyr Energy Networks, just returned from Katanga province in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
While the area relies on inexpensive hydropower from nearby rivers, the region's copper mines suffer four or five blackouts per day and are using diesel as a backup. Henin is setting up new smart grid technologies to better manage the flow of energy, as well as solar systems that can make the mines more productive.
The next step is connecting rural communities who will pay for their power through cellphone banking. Given all these changes, Henin believes the future looks bright for Africa's power supply.
"All these emerging markets will avoid having centralized grids like we have in North America or Europe," Henin said. "Power will be generated locally, and the shift away from diesel and fossil fuels to renewables cuts the links to the oil market. It takes time, and there will definitely be bumps on the way."