Powering Rural Areas With Solar Mini-Grids
Husk Power Systems recently secured $100 million to scale its mini-grid deployments in rural Africa and Asia.
Husk Power Systems, a Colorado-based developer of solar mini-grids, secured $100 million in financing to expand its footprint in rural Africa and South Asia. The funding supports an eight-fold increase in the company’s fleet, with 1,400 new mini-grids supplying 300,000 connections to displace 350,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) from diesel generation.
Solar mini-grid in Nigeria. Image used courtesy of Husk Power Systems
Husk Power Systems designs and develops solar-powered mini-plants (from 20 to 250 kW) and operates transmission and distribution networks to bring power to off-grid communities with weak or nonexistent power infrastructure. It has commissioned over 200 solar hybrid mini-grids in India, Nigeria, and Tanzania, serving thousands of homes and businesses. Another 250 sites are in its development pipeline.
Husk’s grid-compatible system costs less than $2.35 per watt or $300 per connection. This is cheaper than a typical residential hybrid solar system, though costs vary depending on capacity. Two-thirds of the new capital will serve Husk’s expansion in Sub-Saharan Africa, where the World Bank estimates over 560 million people lack access to electricity. This figure accounts for most of the 733 million people worldwide without electricity. Another 3 billion have unreliable power. That disparity is steadily easing, though, as international development organizations like the World Bank accelerate the push for rural power supply in the continent.
Video used courtesy of Husk Power Systems
Before the mini-grid sector emerged, remote communities in Africa and India had no access to reliable AC power. Husk entered the scene in the late 2010s with a hybrid system to deliver six to eight hours of AC to rural customers with synchronized solar and biomass gasification. Today, its mini-grid installations have displaced thousands of generators, providing a renewable and reliable energy source to rural communities in Africa and Asia. Its pre-paid smart metering system provides a 24-hour onsite service dispatch when issues arise, while a cloud-based remote management platform monitors performance.
What Are Mini-Grids?
Despite the similar name, mini-grids are distinct from smaller-scale microgrids, which typically have 1 to 50 kW of generation capacity. Husk’s plants reach up to 250 kW. Community-level mini-grids combine solar generation and battery storage systems with local transmission and distribution networks. These distributed energy resources (DERs) are cost-effective and sustainable alternatives to centralized utilities and diesel generators, the longtime status quo. By locating energy generation close to the end consumers, mini-grid DERs can drive down costs and deliver 24/7 electricity to homes, businesses, factories, and other operations.
While small-scale solutions like solar lanterns and rooftop panels can help power communities without electricity, they can be expensive and only provide low energy levels. Mini-grids, on the other hand, offer higher uptime at a lower Levelized Cost of Electricity—meeting rural communities’ needs similarly to a main power grid. This is critical in countries like Nigeria, where rural farmers, clinics, and schools rely on diesel and petrol generators or kerosene for power and lighting. Grid extension often isn’t an option.
Fast project deployment is another advantage of mini-grids. Husk’s average rollout is 16 grids per month.
The status and outlook of five key mini-grid metrics through 2030. Image used courtesy of World Bank Group
Still, there are a few major barriers to scaling mini-grids to compete with national grids. Mainly, not all developers have the required power quality—three-phase AC with suitable voltage and frequency control—to meet the market’s demands. While subsidized national grids may provide low-quality power, the costs are lower than mini-grids.
Husk’s Next Scale-Up in Sub-Saharan Africa
Husk Power Systems’ newly launched Africa Sunshot, a $500 million initiative, will add 2,500 solar microgrids in off-grid and weak-grid communities across six African countries—including 1,000 mini-grids in Nigeria, 500 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and 250 in four other yet-to-be-determined countries.
The electrification rate in Africa’s 33 least developed countries (LDCs) is about 36% today. For many rural areas, the annual connection rate would need to rise from 13.7 million to 41 million to meet the United Nations’ 2015 Sustainable Development Goal (SDG7) to unlock a global supply of renewable and affordable electricity by 2030. World Bank estimates that SDG7’s 2030 target to power 380 million people in Africa will require over 160,000 mini-grids totaling $91 billion. At the current deployment rate, only 12,000 new mini-grids will be built, serving 46 million people at a $9 billion investment.
A Husk Power Systems mini-grid. Image used courtesy of Husk
Husk Power Systems is lending its tech towards these goals. Last year, the company signed a UN Energy Compact, pledging to build 5,000 mini-grids and connect 1 million customers in Africa and Asia by 2030. Husk’s five-year Africa Sunshot will enable 1 million connections serving 7.7 million people, install 150 MW of rooftop solar for commercial and industrial operations, and thwart 2.1 megatons of CO2 by displacing diesel generation.
Husk Power Systems converted mobile towers from diesel to solar generation in Nigeria. Image used courtesy of Husk
Sub-Saharan Africa’s solar mini-grid deployment has accelerated recently, expanding from 500 in 2010 to over 3,000 today, with 9,000 planned in the coming years. Declining component prices, the advent of digital management solutions, and a growing cohort of mini-grid developers have helped drive this expansion and reduce costs. World Bank estimates the cost of electricity produced by mini-grids could fall to $.20 per kWh by 2030, making it the most affordable solution for more than 60% of the population.