Answering Africa’s energy access questions cleanly and affordably

Answering Africa’s energy access questions cleanly and affordably

Making energy affordable for all, even communities in Africa that have never had access to a reliable grid, need not be as daunting a task as it may sound, argues Dr Amrit Chandan, CEO of circular economy lithium-ion battery company Aceleron.

Over half a billion Africans lack access to electric power. As one of the biggest drivers of economic growth, energy is vital to development across Sub-Saharan Africa and yet many are being left behind.

However, new technologies in energy storage and accessibility are changing the continent’s fortunes. As many countries across Africa are not burdened with an ageing energy network, the continent can whole heartedly embrace the clean energy revolution and move to rapidly develop low-carbon and low-cost energy systems.

Central to this transition is small-scale renewable energy combined with storage. Africa has no shortage of daytime sunlight and rooftop solar panels can generate clean energy to be stored in batteries for use at night.

Energy storage-as-a-service models can make it work

The potential for the technologies is vast, but substantial investment is required to meet the continent’s energy needs. The price of solar panels and batteries remains substantially too high for most households. That’s where 'energy storage-as-a-service' (ESaaS) can play a huge role.

ESaaS financial models effectively allow off-grid families to rent batteries, solar panels and appliances, such as a fridge, TV or light, for less than $10 a month. This innovative approach is making comprehensive and traditionally costly off-grid energy offerings affordable.

Mobile pay networks are also fundamental in enabling pay as you go (PAYG) schemes such as ESaaS to flourish. As mobile network operators improve connection services across the continent, more Africans can access digital payment capabilities enabling them to make the monthly payments for these clean technologies more easily.

By embracing innovative solutions such as ESaaS, off-grid communities across Africa have the opportunity to rapidly develop a decentralised, low-cost and low-carbon power supply. Under such a network, traditional fossil fuel alternatives – such as kerosene – can be eliminated from the African home, minimising the risk of harm to the user through hot spillages or toxic gasses, and preventing damaging emissions from seeping into our atmosphere.

It's all about the circular economy

But there is still a matter of waste. Despite notably lower emissions, emerging technologies still contribute a huge amount to landfill. The large majority of batteries are discarded when one component fails. Globally this is generating 50 million tonnes of electrical waste per year, of which a disproportionate amount is dumped across Africa.

With Africa’s off-grid solar market now standing at US$24bn and predicted to increase alongside demand for solar and storage technology, it is imperative that the circular economy is applied to the end-of-life management of these technologies to avoid another fossil fuel problem down the line.

Circular economy lithium-ion batteries provide an elegant solution to this problem. Their unique design means they can be easily repaired, upgraded, reused and recycled. They have a lifetime ten times longer than normal batteries and dramatically reduce the waste going to landfill. The increased lifecycle and ease of repair also reduces the lifetime cost of energy storage, further enhancing the economics of the ESaaS model.

One is example is how our company, Aceleron has partnered with Shell Foundation to deliver 4,000 batteries to Kenya, 2,000 of which are under an ESaaS scheme. The project is expected to deliver clean and accessible energy to 20,000 people. Users will pay less than five pounds (US$6.55) per month for a system including a battery, solar generation and an appliance, e.g. a fridge.

Conservation of resources is at the heart of the circular economy and by applying it to energy storage, we can minimise the use of important finite metals. Lithium, cobalt and nickel have long faced scrutiny over the environmental impact of mining, and have a notorious track record of ethical violations and poor treatment of frontline workers.

Circular economy lithium-ion batteries and PAYG schemes like ESaaS can empower off-grid communities with clean and affordable energy. By addressing both the mounting problem of battery waste, and conserving finite resources, pioneering circular economy batteries can provide a low cost and low carbon solution to the African and global energy transition and deliver clean power to all.

Read Amrit's previous Guest Blog for this site, 'Cycle of life: a circular economy approach to lithium batteries', which goes into more detail on Aceleron's recycling techniques and business models, from August 2019, here

Cover Image: Amrit Chandan (left) speaks at the Global Off-grid and Solar Forum & Expo. Image: Aceleron via Facebook. 

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