The off-grid solar company connecting 12,000 homes a month

Print Friendly

ABU DHABI: Australia thinks it is doing pretty well adding some 12,000 homes and business with solar panels each month. In Tanzania, however, one recent start-up is doing even better – it is adding solar and in some cases storage to 12,000 homes a month with no connection to the grid.

Many efforts to bring electricity to homes with no electricity are considered something of a niche market. But Off grid Electric, the brainchild of a group of US and UK 30-somethings with experience in sub-Sahara Africa, is proving it can be done on a significant scale.

The efforts of the past few years has earned the company the prestigious Zayed Future Energy prize, for the SME section, which is presented each year at the World Future Energy in Abu Dhabi.

The principal behind Off Grid Electric is to create the world’s first massively scalable off-grid electric company. The company says it provides “clean, affordable and transformative energy” directly to households that have never had access to reliable electricity.

They can choose a single panel to power a few lights, or have the whole solar and storage kit that can power whatever it is that they want or need.

The success behind Off Grid Electric is that it operates as a service model that removes risk for customers. It uses financing measures – effectively a solar lease – to offer the latest in solar technology for less than or equal to a customer’s average energy spend on kerosene and diesel.

Just after the conclusion of the Paris conference, it secured $US45 million in funds from a range of private investors to further its work. That took total funding to more than $US70 million.

off grid electric

Spokesman Graham Smith told RenewEconomy that the key is in the business model rather than the technology, where prices of both solar panels and battery storage are coming down quickly.

“We think of it as an energy services business model. We are offering lighting, phone charging, and increasing access to a modern lifestyle. We are enabling homes that have previously relied on kerosene or diesel.” Many customers want at least enough power to watch the English Premier League football games on TV.

And, he emphasises, it is not a matter of thinking green that is driving the demand, it is a matter of simple economics. “They don’t burn jet fuel for cooking and lighting out of choice. They do it because they have to. They don’t care so much about being green.”

The main challenges, Smith says, are getting access to the technology for remote communities and making the right choice on technology. There is also the issue of who looks after day 2 of installation. In other words, who looks after the maintenance.

“What we do is deliver a solution that addresses those barriers,” Smith says.

The success of Off Grid Electric, and the man other companies just like it, make a nonsense of the claim by the coal lobby – and enthusiastically echoed by conservative think tanks and the Coalition government – that coal is the only solution to energy poverty.

There are 1.3 billion with no access to the grid. But Smith says the success of models like Off Grid Electric’s means that people who never had the grid may never need a grid. “if you have a mobile phone and never had a land line, why would you install a land line. It’s the same for electricity.”

Which is not to say that there is no role or reason to expand the grid. But it does suggest that – with the added costs of the grid – there is a real option that does not include a multi-decade commitment to fossil fuels.

Off Grid Electric is expanding into Rwanda, and hopes to target other African countries, and even Asia and the Americas.

“Our mission is to power the world with clean, transformative energy in the next decade,” the company’s website says. And it believes it has the template to do it.

“We’ve created a distributed solar model, to provide electricity to each and every household in the off-grid world. For a price that is equal to or less than our customers’ average energy spend, we turn the lights on and much more…





RenewEconomy Free Daily Newsletter

Share this:

  • humanitarian solar

    These solar systems are the cheapest because they are the simplest – using DC. Solar panels work on DC, batteries work on DC and the LED lights and mobile phones work on DC. DC LED light globes work on 12V or 24V or both and mobile phone chargers for cars or trucks work on 12V or 24V. Notice the unparalleled speed of solar uptake that’s unparalleled in the rest of the world. This is because the system is electronically simple.
    Many Australian homes could integrate simple small DC systems like this, for example a PV array for a DC pool pump which doesn’t even need a battery, as the pump can be designed to do its work when the sun shines. Small solar systems for the poor are best kept simple. Small solar systems for RV’s, motorhomes, yachts, cabins and small remote homes off grid are best kept simple. When the load (appliances) are powered directly off the battery, those appliances which pump water, supply refrigeration and power communications equipment cannot fail, as they don’t have additional equipment like inverters, which are used to interact with the grid and supply high power appliances. The more high power appliances, the more the cost of the inverter and the system and its payback go up.
    Great case study and article.

    • John P

      There’s nothing new under the sun, as they say.
      Here in Australia, back before the second world war, and even after it for a while, there were off grid DC power systems in operation in much of rural Australia. These consisted of a 32v DC wind turbine (Quirk’s or Dunlite) powering a 32v battery.
      There was no inverter.
      The home was equiped with 32v appliances and the lifestyle was on a par with the urban equivalent.
      Quirk’s (Brisbane) and Dunlite (Adelaide) had a big reputation in rural America at the time and this is saying something as the American option (Jacobs) was a quality machine.

      • humanitarian solar

        Yes the technology is very old. It will be interesting to see what happens with rural Australia in the future and the extent DC generators or loads will be integrated with new technologies.

        • John P

          We have a model for the future in rural Australia.
          I live in rural Australia with a house wired to AS3000 just as any urban house would be. I have a high quality ‘off grid’ power plant based on PVs, but I made sure that the house had high thermal performance characteristics so that NO energy was needed for heating or cooling. Thus the energy input becomes quite modest. To run all my electrical appliances (incl dishwasher), I use no more than 5kwh per day. This is easily achieved with a quite modest PV / battery based installation.
          This could be done in suburbia as long as the house was up to standard. Most of course, are not.

          • humanitarian solar

            We’re doing the same with insulation, extraction roof vents, cross ventilation, sliding slats over windows where the angle only lets winter sun in. The last electricity bill was 4.1kwhr/day though we use more in winter. We don’t have gas as it’s fracked these days. The solar is still mid install though it has a 2500W inverter at 24V so we have the choice to wire DC USB outlets, a DC fridge and water pump directly to batteries. We currently have a 230VAC water pump and fridge. Flexibility and reliability are the overall aim.

          • humanitarian solar

            Just hauled the 9.6kWhr lead acid batteries out here in the office/laundry. They are in the bottom and vented at the rear. The top is the Victron Solar Controller and Inverter. On the roof is the 1.5kw Canadian panels. The system parts are $7600 after STC’s. It won’t quite get us off grid so as an interim measure, I’ll use the grid to top up the maximum inverter output for high power loads and top up the batteries in winter.

          • John P

            Congratulations and welcome to the club.
            I appreciate your assessment of the gas option.
            I suggest that the gas era is over anyway. These days it is possible to do everything previously done by gas, with electricity obtained from a renewable resource – normally solar PV.
            Here for example, we are fully electrical. The kitchen does have a gas cooker installed, but it has never been used.
            Gas generates carbon emissions and solar electricity doesn’t. Gas costs money and solar electricity doesn’t.
            DC fridges are certainly an option and are generally very efficient. However, modern AC fridges are now very efficient as a result of government policy introduced a few years back.
            Flexibility is always a good approach.

          • humanitarian solar

            Thanks, yes we have an induction cooktop.

    • Robin_Harrison

      I couldn’t agree more, DC in the home makes a lot of sense. One problem though, AC appliances are mass produced and significantly cheaper than essentially niche market DC appliances. As distributed generation becomes the norm that may change. Hope so.

      • humanitarian solar

        Yes exactly. We have small buildings so included the 24V inverter to have a bet both ways – have the option of tapping into the RV, yacht, motorhome and small DC system market, while using AC as well.

      • nakedChimp

        If you transfer 1-2kW via 12V or 24V you need thick wires (lot’s of copper = expensive) as 1kW divided by 12V is 83Amps (rule of thumb: 1mm^2 copper per 10A of current to not overheat the wires).
        Also ohmic losses (the heat) become more the longer the wires are.
        You want higher voltage.. at least 48Vdc.. better 230Vdc.

        Modern appliances (except for some non-inverter induction motor appliances like fridges or stove convection fans) are all converting the AC to DC before it’s being used in the appliance, this means internally they use something like 230Vdc already.
        You could put those appliances directly onto solar panels and they would work.

        The real problem?
        Plugs and sockets for 230Vdc that can be SAFELY connected/disconnected under load (1-3kW) without burning up.
        Check out developments for server farms for running on 380/400Vdc.. that’s where the future it with DC usage and equipment as a standard.

        Also residual current devices (RCDs) won’t work on DC currently. That’s another reason why DC supply systems won’t go over 48Vdc/60Vdc easily, as electric shocks are potentially deadly above that level.

        • humanitarian solar

          Hi nakedChimp, I agree a higher DC voltage would be good if appliances and RCD’s were designed. However 24V is enough to get around small buildings whether the appliance is placed near the battery or far away. I’ll do the calculations for both. In the picture of the solar cabinet below, there is space for a Beier 176L 12/24V DC fridge $900 on ebay) on the LHS of the battery so in this example, its a 2 metre wire run from the fusebox to the fridge. For a 2% voltage drop, the formulae is:
          S = (L x I x 0.82) divided by VO where
          S = conductor size in mm2
          L = total conductor length in metres
          I = maximum amps
          VO = operating voltage
          If the run is 2 meters the electrons have to get there and back so we use 4 metres for the distance. The appliance is 75Watts and at 24V that works out at 3.125A, so if we plug that into the formulae we get:
          S = 4 metres x 3.125A x 0.82 divided by 24V
          = 0.427mm2 cable needed. If we use regular 1.5mm2 its about $1 a metre so this wire run in the below design the cost is $2.
          However if we work to your concern for a worst case example and locate the DC fridge on the other side of this small building, it would be a 15 metre wire run or 30 metres there and back for the electrons, so if we plug those figures in we get:
          S = 30Metres x 3.125A x 0.82 divided by 24V
          = 3.2mm2 so we need 4mm2 cable which is about $1.25 a metre, so with our 15 metre wire run that works out at a cost of $18.75 for our fridge cable to the other side of the building.
          So I agree that higher voltage DC appliances would be better, though in the present day with the 24V DC appliances we have with the current RCD’s and switches we have, 24V is going to work satisfactorily in the below building and African people probably are not going to have buildings much bigger than 20 metres across. I also think we need to be training ourselves to use low current efficient appliances, so in the present day working with 24V needs a bit of sensitive planning though people do it ok. What do you think of my solar cabinet below? I planned the possibility of adding a DC fridge and water pump to the property to add a bit of flexibility and redundancy into the system as a whole. If there is a problem with an AC fridge, water pump or an inverter, there will still be water and refrigeration on the property.

  • humanitarian solar

    Africa might not worry about putting up a grid or paying for inverters. They might just use solar panels, a regulator and a battery with DC appliances.

  • Math Geurts

    However: ““Real” Electricity Still Comes from the Grid”

    “Stamp out the phrase “leapfrogging” in the context of distributed solar energy for households in the developing world …. One of the reasons I object to the phrase leapfrogging is that, at least given current technologies, home solar systems do not provide anywhere close to the same level of service as electricity from the grid. By contrast, a mobile phone, the oft-cited analogy in the leapfrogging discussions, has at least one notable advantage over a landline – it’s mobile.”

    • humanitarian solar

      Hi Math, on page two of the top document it says:
      “Our data indicate that home solar users own quite different appliances compared to grid-connected households, and suggest that home solar does not satisfy the full range of household energy needs, given current appliance technologies.”

      The researchers are from America and base their assumptions on a constantly expanding economy, where ever greater power and range of electrical appliances is the aim. In other words, their research serves selling power. This is what grids do and often what academics, not all academics but some are tasked to do, sell the position of the businesses which finance their academic research and careers. I’m not suggesting that leap frogging should be applied on a universal scale in developing countries, though I am suggesting that in certain instances like remote areas in both Africa (and Australia) it makes little financial sense putting up a grid over the whole country. The big advantage for home solar users, is not getting caught into the world of big business making a profit out of them meeting their basic energy needs. Electricity companies are not for locals. They are for shareholders in distant lands and this is a form of oppression not empowerment. Even in a country like Australia, it is two thirds the size of America and one eight the population density, so American assumptions do not necessarily apply to Australia. Academics tend to universalise their intellect, when the best strategy is a case by case and community by community assessment.

      • Math Geurts

        “Of course, decentralized solar may remain the most attractive option for a small number of isolated rural communities located far away from the national power grid.” … but … “In the future, countries in Sub-Saharan Africa will continue to expand centralized electricity generating capacity to serve industrial, commercial, and urban customers. This will happen regardless of the proportion of rural households that adopts home solar. In the SSA countries that we examine, a large share of these capacity additions will feature non-fossil fuel technologies”

        Unfortunately it can not be denied anymore nowadays that, like everywhere else, young people in Africa don’t want to live their life in such unserved remote communities. Lucky Australians don’t allow them to immigrate and tell them to enjoy their arcadic life off-grid. Really humanitarian?

        • humanitarian solar

          I wouldn’t predict the future in absolutes, although I’d like to see us all enjoying the wealth of nature’s energy and the sun, in the most equitable, fair and social just way that can evolve.

          • Math Geurts

            Also in Africa most people want more than “the “wealth” of nature’s energy and the sun”. For me it seems humanitarian to keep this preference strictly for yourself.

          • humanitarian solar

            I didn’t say monetary wealth if that’s what your implying. I agree it’s a transformation of values regards what wealth is. What is wealth for you Math?

          • Math Geurts

            No, that’s not what I am implying. The issue is: it is your preference.

          • humanitarian solar

            What’s my preference? What do you think of my effort getting this properties electricity usage down to 4.1kWhrs/day? Does that strike you as a materialist? Also what do you think of the solar system install I’m in the middle of – pictured below here? And you avoided my question, what is wealth for you?

          • Math Geurts

            Your preference seems to be to use solar electricity, and as less as possible. That’s not the preference of most people in Africa.

          • humanitarian solar

            Well who among us haven’t been disposed to seek happiness through materialism? However I remain optimistic that people can see through this, even if things don’t work out and the things they hoped would bring happiness fail, then there’s a grief process. Let’s not get jaded or pessimistic though, not that I’m saying either of us is. We can only move forward with the best awareness we have and be as sincere as we can.. I reckon..

          • Math Geurts

            Apparently for you, to prefer more then off-grid solar electricity is awful “materialism”. Let’s allow Africans to make their own choice. Once “we” wanted the to be them Cristians. Now some of us want them to be devoted adherents of off-grid solar

          • humanitarian solar

            I don’t want to give the impression I’m exclusively for an off grid approach as I’m not. I think a terrible situation has emerged where grid operators have become afraid and the grid is not transforming to the intelligent, happy and harmonious grid many of us hoped for. Presently I would prefer minimal interaction with the grid though if the grid presents fair relations with all stakeholders, including individual households, the solar system below can download software to be interactive.