06/11/2019 – Innovation Series / Energy / Renewables / Azuri Technologies / Africa
Africa’s generational leap
New energy generation should not focus on the past, asserts CEO Simon Bransfield-Garth, whose company Azuri Technologies is leading next-generation power projects in off-grid Africa, as the continent forges a new path for renewables.
‘The best way to predict tomorrow’s weather is to assume it will be the same as today’, or so the saying goes. A lot of the time it will be, but this approach offers no insight into what the future will bring, and fails horribly when disruptive change is around the corner and people are left unprepared. That’s why weather forecasts were invented.
Similarly, in the energy sector it’s all too easy to look to traditional markets today for tomorrow’s energy solutions. Yet in so doing we are in danger of not letting go of the past and failing to be properly prepared for the future. Inevitably, 200 years of electricity history and infrastructure make it difficult for alternative approaches to compete with what is already there.
Instead, we must look at places where the established order does not exist, where innovative approaches compete on their own merits, and where the future is able to shine through. Look at renewable energy. In the mainstream, there are people with solar panels on their roofs, there are solar farms, wind farms and hydro-power, but the renewable energy generated by these assets generally goes back into the grid.
To see the true value of renewable energy, we need to look to where the grid does not exist. In sub-Saharan Africa, 600 million people – well over half the population of the continent – have no access to the grid. Households across the region are increasingly using solar power as their first step to gaining energy access. Solar and batteries have many advantages – for one, the cost of connecting to the grid, on average, is about US$2,000, whereas a basic solar home system can be purchased for as little as US$50. These solar systems may not have the capacity of the grid, but they do deliver something the grid cannot in Africa: clean and reliable power that can be managed by the customers themselves.
Learning to innovate
The past can provide some valuable insights, but these must be applied with new technologies and perspectives. Many households in Africa without any electricity spend around 50 cents per day on fuel for lighting and to get someone to charge their mobile phones. In 2012, companies started offering small solar home systems on a rent-to-buy basis (PayGo). At that time, 50 cents per day would buy you a single small light and some phone charging. Dial forwards to 2019 and the same money will get you a home lighting system with four LED lights, phone charging, rechargeable radio and torch. For US$1 a day you get a 24-inch smart TV with 60 channels of satellite content.
The cost of solar is coming down at a rate of around 15 per cent annually. Similarly, the cost of batteries is falling rapidly, driven by the demands of the electric car industry, especially in China. If we can go from powering a small light to providing basic household electricity in seven years, imagine what will be possible in another decade. The same money will likely get you about four times the power of today’s systems; enough power to drive a TV, fridge, fan, laptop, lights, phone charging and internet access. Couple that with gas for cooking (and heating, if necessary) and you have pretty much covered the household needs for many homes.
The cost of accessing the grid is not reducing. If the cost of connecting to the grid is unaffordable, it may well simply become redundant in the future. After all, standalone power gives you what you need at an affordable price.
Following the recent major meeting of the world’s leaders in New York to explore our climate future, it is good to reflect on global trends in sectors that can have a direct impact. While predicting the climate from historical information remains very difficult due to the complexity of global interactions, looking at trends in the cost of solar and batteries is much simpler. These trends tell us that new technology and new ways of energy generation will overtake conventional ways very soon. In many parts of Africa, it already has. Look at the millions of off-grid households that have already found the cheapest source of electricity that generates no carbon whatsoever. Of course, there is still some carbon footprint from the equipment’s manufacture, but that is reducing all the time. The gap between what those systems can power compared to normal household use of the grid is rapidly reducing to zero.
On a continent with the highest annual population growth on the planet at about three per cent – that’s adding the equivalent of nearly half the population of the UK every year – it’s encouraging to see millions of households skipping the fossil fuel generation and jumping directly into clean electricity and a digital world powered by the sun.
About the author
Simon Bransfield-Garth leads the team at Azuri Technologies, bringing affordable clean energy to rural off-grid households in Africa. He has 25 years’ global experience in building rapid-growth, technology-based businesses. Simon was named a Global Technology Pioneer by the World Economic Forum, and was formerly an Industrial Fellow at the Royal Society and Research Fellow at Cambridge University in the UK. Since Azuri Technologies was launched in 2012, nearly a million people have benefited from clean, reliable energy in rural Africa.