How solar hybridisation of mini-grids can open up new opportunities for rural businesses

The development of decentralised solar hybrid power stations offers new opportunities to improve rural access to electricity. If the benefits of solar are harnessed, the terms of access and quality of electricity supply can almost match national grids: 24-hour availability with high power handling capability. This is where rural micro-businesses – productive customers – come in. The first decentralised grids were of little benefit to them. Lacking appropriate operating hours, constrained by grids designed for domestic customers and seen as low priority when available power is limited, rural micro-businesses had to arrange their own energy sources. A regrettable state of affairs given that these micro-businesses provide people with jobs, products and services.

Not all rural localities are seeing the development of micro-businesses. Useful economic potential is found in towns which have over 5,000 inhabitants or a central position. In these places, providing a few hundred watts per customer based on a standard solution replicated from site to site is not enough to make the environment attractive to entrepreneurs. There is a need to understand the economic dynamics of the area; anticipate which activities will develop there; have precise details of the equipment proposed; adapt the sizing of both the hybrid power station and the grid accordingly; and set out or even require micro-businesses to fulfil the technical conditions needed to facilitate energy supply, including from appropriate, low-energy equipment.

Having worked on these issues in West Africa since 2007, GERES feels it is in the interests of the electricity suppliers themselves to address the needs of these productive customers:

  1. as micro-businesses primarily operate during the day, solar power consumption can be increased with no need for storage in a battery bank;
  2. most of them can be concentrated in appropriate sites (small business parks) close to the power stations;
  3. the economic model of micro-businesses enables them to pay more for electricity so long as quality is guaranteed.

In Mali, GERES has just launched an initial business park powered by a hybrid solar-Jatropha solution in Konséguéla. A second is due to open in Koury in 2016, integrated in the micro-grid operated by the SSD Yeelen Kura Company. The design of each system is based on precise knowledge of the load curves and economic model of each micro-business. Using relevant, efficient equipment (including smart grid and smart meter technology) in bioclimatic buildings, these business parks aim to offer the entrepreneurs a continual incentive (through variable pricing) to develop their businesses without jeopardising electricity production or distribution.

by Benjamin Pallière, Rural Energy Expert, GERES

This article has been published in the Alliance for Rural Electrification newsletter


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