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.
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…