The INTASAVE Energy program is deploying $30 million in developing low and lower-income countries to install more clean energy and low-carbon energy infrastructure. Initially, it is focusing on such projects in Africa in the form of solar nano-grids. Each grid will be able to supply clean electricity to about 50 households, and the program is targeting 75,000 households. The program also works with outside investors, including individuals, and will provide secure returns, says INTASAVE. CEO Dr Murray Simpson and Arran De Moubray, Head of Renewable Energy, answered some questions about the program.
1. In your target areas, what do you mean by Solar Nano-Grids? How many are you going to install, what are their benefits, and how much solar power do they produce?
Solar Nano-Grids (SONGs) provide clean, reliable and affordable electricity to off-grid communities in developing regions, where larger solar installations are simply not viable.
Solar energy has long been a solution for bringing electricity to rural areas, with various projects installed in the last few years with varying degrees of success. However, the main difficulty has always been finding a model that is affordable, easy to maintain and scalable to meet the growing energy needs of these rural communities and households as they develop.
In contrast, SONGs are a unique combination of technologies that not only provide a “quick fix” for immediate electricity needs (both domestic and communal), but also a long-term sustainable, scalable, and affordable solution that allows communities to grow their electricity usage at their own pace.
Each SONG consists of a small grid network and central solar hub that produces a direct current (DC) inverter-less power output of 3-5 kW and is not connected with a utility grid. The solar hub contains traditional lead-acid cells that store the power collected from the solar panels, and also houses the battery bank with portable battery packs that can be taken to be used in households and returned for re-charging. Each SONG can typically serve around 50 households at 20Wp per household – enough to power 3 light bulbs and a phone charger, for example.
Using this model, SONGs can supply a community of individual households covering a radius of about 600M from each hub with power. Crucially the ‘hub’ model also enables the provision of collective community power. 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.
The SONG system architecture is also modular, which means it can easily be extended over time in keeping with the growing aspirations and needs of the community or individual households. What’s more, new photovoltaic (PV) panels can be installed and the existing nano-grids can then be interconnected to form a larger, more powerful system, or be connected to other new grids.
By providing clean energy this way, SONGs can improve quality of life, empower women, improve health, increase children’s educational attainment, and boost the local economy.
2. Are everyday consumers eligible to participate in the investment opportunity? If so, what are the details as far as interest, duration, and so forth?
The investment plan for SONGs involves two distinct phases.
Phase 1 focused on raising sufficient funds to kick-start the projects through crowdfunding. Having achieved our initial goal of $100,000, we are already in the process of installing the first SONGs in two Kenyan communities – Lemolo B and Echareria. Three further SONGs will also be funded through the initial money raised.
Phase 2 is a long-term impact investment initiative to raise more substantial funds to significantly expand the deployment of SONGs. INTASAVE Energy is targeting $30 million funding though this initiative, which will fund SONGs to support 75,000 targeted households and circa 375,000 people. Initially this will support 1,500 communities in Kenya in 18 months with further deployments in East and Southern Africa over the coming two years. The scalable US$30M INTASAVE Energy funding program is structured in a number of tranches and will raise a combination of equity, debt (senior and mezzanine) and grant capital aimed at enabling the implementation of the SONGs program.
3. Where would a person find out about how to make the investment?
The best way to find out about investing is to get in contact with Dr Murray Simpson and the team of experts, through the INTASAVE Energy website. We have a range of resources to walk potential investors through the process. Details can be found there or contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
4. Can people from countries outside of England become investors?
Yes, absolutely. We are a global organization and are talking to potential investors in many countries, especially the UK, Europe, and USA – and of course investors from within Africa.
5. The initial focus is in Africa, but which countries and areas within those countries?
Our key focus at the moment is Kenya. The first two installations are underway and three other projects in Kenya have been earmarked. Interest for further projects in the country is also already growing.
Kenya was chosen as an ideal starting point in Africa because around 75% of its population (approximately 30 million people) are living without access to electricity. 95% of those people are located in off-grid rural areas, which are simply not viable for the larger solar installations. Currently these people rely on kerosene for lighting and diesel for agricultural machinery, both of which are expensive, cause pollution, and are harmful to health.
As well as the clear need for better sources of off-grid power, Kenya is also well-suited to solar energy. An average of 5kWh/m²/day is available throughout the country, which is a significant resource to draw on. Indeed, Kenya’s annual averages for available solar energy are some of the highest in the world.
INTASAVE Energy is working with local communities and national and regional partners to identify hundreds of appropriate locations for the SONGs using a range of technical, geographical, socio-economic, and livelihood criteria.
6. Will low-income people living in rural areas with no electricity be a focus?
They are the main focus. 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. Most Kenyan households lacking access to electricity are impoverished farmers and pastoralists living in rural areas growing their own food and, where possible, growing excess crops to generate income. Their only current access to power is through the use of kerosene and diesel, which as mentioned above both have significant drawbacks.
The installation of a clean energy solution using solar power is therefore a very effective step forward for residents in these communities. The fact that SONGs support both individual household and community-level needs means that we can deliver significant positive impact in terms of education, health, gender empowerment, technical capacity and reduction of poverty.
7. How much of an impact does getting access to clean, renewable electricity have on their lives?
The potential impact of clean energy for these communities is incredibly profound.
Energy is crucial to sustainable development, and of course SONGs will have a direct benefit in terms of the economic advantages communities will be able to realize from the availability of reliable and affordable energy for both households and community use.
Aside from the economic benefits there are a host of positive impacts that SONGs will deliver.
As well as being expensive, the kerosene and diesel currently used to run enterprises, or as the fuel in lamps for lighting, is proven to be extremely harmful to health and well-being. For example, children are often forced to do their homework by kerosene lamp. As a result, one of the top reasons for clinic visits is fume inhalation or fumes affecting eyes. By using SONGs, communities can eliminate their exposure to health risks to lungs and eyes, reducing recorded respiratory disorders and deaths associated with indoor air pollution.
The collective energy benefits of SONGs also mean that maternal health can be improved, owing to the reduced physical labor demands caused by new practices such as water pumping, corn-husking, and maize-milling. What’s more, communities are now able to store medicine, vaccines, and milk for themselves – something that until now had not been possible.
In terms of education, children from electrified households are estimated to gain an average of two years of ‘educational achievement’ by comparison to those from non-electrified households. Households can also benefit from far greater access to radio, television, ICT and mobile telephones, all of which can be far more easily recharged via SONGs.
8. Who will be doing the work at the community level in the field?
INTASAVE Energy will be installing the work at the local level via the INTASAVE Africa office. INTASAVE Africa’s staff are also undertaking the intensive consultations with the prospective communities.
Working with local tradesmen and community members, INTASAVE Energy helps ensure that the solar hubs are built first, and local people help with the installation of the equipment for the solar panels and battery charging units. Each village will also have at least two community volunteers who learn the operation and maintenance of the SONG whilst developing entrepreneurial skills in order that they can assist in enabling micro-enterprises and other users to make effective use of the SONG. INTASAVE also helps to establish a Village Energy Committee (VEC) to manage the SONG, which plays a critical role in achieving the smooth functioning of the project.
9. If the initial focus is in Africa, will there be other focus areas after Africa, or running concurrently with the ones in Africa?
We are already working on planning projects in other parts of Africa, especially Eastern and South Africa, but beyond that we are also looking at Asia and South America, with plans already underway for Guyana. The model we have developed works well in any location where the prevailing climate conditions are right.
10. If people who have been collecting wood from wild forests for fires get solar power and LED lights, do they then consume less wood?
Absolutely – during our community consultation this was one of the key bits of feedback from the women in the communities. Currently they have to spend long hours collecting firewood for cooking and lighting their homes. They will still need firewood for cooking initially, but longer term they will become increasingly able to use solar electricity for more or even all of their household needs.
“I’m very happy because my children will study freely with no struggles. Life will be easier. I won’t have to buy kerosene to light my house. Looking for firewood is also difficult for me,” Mama Elma, Lemolo B.
Image Credit: NASA/Public domain
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