EDF thinks locally to solve Africa’s big power problems

Fri, 2014-10-31 06:00 -- Kevin Ebi

Almost wherever you go in Africa, it’s rare to find electricity. And where there’s power, it’s expensive and unreliable. Council Lead Partner Electricite de France --  EDF -- is trying to change that with an innovative approach that’s already generating results.

Some 620 million people in Africa don’t have electricity – that's half of all the people on the planet who don’t have it. And in well over a dozen African nations – including Ethiopia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda – more than 75% of their residents are without power.  And every year, the number of people grows faster than the amount of power.

Those who do have power don’t have much. Ghana, which has a better supply than most African nations, had to significantly curtail production at an aluminum plant so that people would have enough electricity to watch the World Cup.

EDF's ambitious efforts
At first glance, EDF’s approach may seem unconventional. It’s addressing a widespread problem by crafting local solutions. And it’s insisting on using renewable energy sources.

Through this approach, it has already delivered power to nearly a half million people in Africa, a number it could double by early next decade. Energy magazine recently profiled EDF’s ambitious efforts.

Using clean, renewable energy is a critical part of the plan. Many in Africa resort to burning animal dung and other organic matter to cook their food and heat their homes, a desperate measure that causes millions of deaths from air pollution each year.

Thinking locally to solve a widespread problem is more pragmatic. While the end problem is the same in each area, the infrastructure, resources and so on are not. EDF believes it can reach more people faster by building on local strengths rather than developing elaborate systems to stretch across the continent.

It’s leveraging existing resources when it can. In Senegal, EDF partnered with a local company to help connect more households to the existing grid and develop new hybrid diesel/solar and biofuel-fired power plants. By this time next year, these efforts, which started just three years ago, could reach 180,000 people.

Developing microgrids in Mali
In Mali, it has been developing microgrids in 20 villages surrounding the country’s cotton fields. The low- and medium-voltage grids are powered by diesel, solar energy or a combination of both.

EDF’s strategy for Morocco is to develop the power at each home. The homes it needs to reach are far from the electric grid, so it’s working to install solar panels and batteries in each home. It plans to reach 161,000 people this way.

Using power to stimulate economies
In Botswana, while the country has a relatively good electrical infrastructure in developed areas, it reaches only about half of the rural households. EDF’s strategy there is to develop mini power grids in the largest villages that are dark, using power to stimulate their economies and scale its efforts from there. Some 400,000 people could get power this way by 2021.

In all cases, EDF works with local people to help ensure its efforts are sustainable. EDF selects a local partner at the beginning of each project. It manages the creation and develop of each project early on, eventually transferring its entire stake to the local partner as the project becomes more established. It describes its involvement as “start-up aid.”

More on efforts in Africa…
How IBM technology is helping fight Ebola in Africa
Microsoft is investing in Africa's next big idea
EDF and IFC sign agreement to promote rural electrification in Africa and globally