In the Central African country of Cameroon, electricity is scarce outside of major cities. But that may soon change because of a public-private partnership that has a set goal of installing 750 minigrids.
The effort is about more than lighting up the 11,000 villages that lack power; the partners hope to foster long-term social, environmental and economic benefits.
Begun with the installation of seven solar minigrids by Renewable Energy Innovators Cameroon (REIc), the project is a partnership between the US Trade and Development Agency (USTDA), SimpliPhi Power, Morua Power and REIc.
As a result of one of the first seven minigrid installations, a woman who sold food in her community has experienced a major life change. Before the minigrid was installed, she woke before dawn to prepare food — for sale to the community — under the light of a kerosene lamp. But the kerosene fumes often contaminated and spoiled the food.
Now she has light from the solar minigrid, and the kerosene fumes are gone.
“With electricity, she wakes up before sunrise, can turn on the light, make her dough and sell her food to the community. She can come back to her family to provide food and money and nourishment,” said Katherine Morua, founder of Morua Power, an engineering firm that’s focusing on the socioeconomic aspects of the project. “By bringing power to a community that doesn’t have it, we help empower them socioeconomically.”
The USTDA has provided a $950,000 grant that is funding a feasibility study for providing solar minigrids to more than 100,000 households in Cameroon.
The grant went to REIc, which has asked SimpliPhi Power to prepare technical, regulatory, financial and legal analysis to develop an initial 134 solar minigrids, working with the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and Morua Power.
SimpliPhi Power generally supplies energy storage systems, but focuses on creating a socioeconomic impact in underrepresented communities.
Model for next 750 minigrids
The project is expected to be a model for more than 750 minigrids that REIc would develop. The minigrids will range in size from about 40 kW to about 150 kW, providing enough electricity for phone charging, WiFi and lighting for several dozen to 100 households. The larger minigrids will serve hospitals, said Jesse Gerstin, director of sustainable business development at SimpliPhi Power.
“This is minigrid development with a focus on community impact, our bread and butter in the region. With every project, we ask, ‘Did we help someone today?’” said Matt Roberts, director of marketing and communications at SimpliPhi.
To help people in the Cameroon communities, the project aims to provide not only electricity but also services benefitting the residents. They include education services such as laptops for students and WiFi, said Gerstin.
The USTDA grant focuses on providing analysis that will move the country toward broader electrification via minigrids.
“We’re establishing a whole pathway for minigrid development in a country that doesn’t have much established,” said Gerstin. The company is working with the Cameroon agency that oversees the electricity sector, which now has no regulations related to minigrids. SimpliPhi will gather data about the minigrids to help develop regulations.
For the legal analysis, SimpliPhi will look at existing energy law and permitting processes and will provide recommendations to the government. A centralized grid now provides electricity to the country’s capital and its commercial capital.
Will require $50M in capital
The USTDA grant aims to provide a stimulus that will allow for the partners to raise larger amounts of capital, said Gerstin. For minigrids in the first 134 villages, the partners will need to raise about $12 million in capital.
To reach the goal of installing 760 minigrids, they’ll need more than $50 million in capital. The partners will look to impact focused funds such as the African Development Bank and the World Bank for funding.
A major benefit of the project will be environmental. Most of the 11,000 off-grid villages have diesel generators for cell phone charging and lighting. It’s expensive and polluting to run the diesel generators and bring diesel fuel into the communities.
“They’re paying high costs to use just a little bit of electricity,” said Gerstin. And transporting it isn’t always easy. People often transport diesel to their homes or businesses on a motorbike, carrying the fuel in a dairy can.
Environmental improvement isn’t the only goal for Morua, an electrical engineer who has been in the power industry for more than 20 years. It’s critical, she said, to focus on more than just getting the minigrids up and running in underrepresented communities such as those in Cameroon.
“You usually have a contract, you check the boxes and you’re gone. At the end of the day, there are all of these socioeconomic aspects that aren’t always addressed by technology companies,” she said. She hopes to change that.
Retaining culture and local best practices
To help empower communities, Morua Power first identifies available resources and the community’s needs, working closely with community members. In many of these villages, the community has no access to electricity, running water or education. As Morua Power creates a strategy, the goal is not to dictate what’s best, but to retain the culture and existing practices, she said.
For the Cameroon project, Morua Power will develop a plan for sustainable business development, focusing on the communities’ specific resources and strengths. The aim is to connect the communities to broader markets and increase their cash flow and opportunities.
One example is creating a resiliency hub based on a minigrid. It won’t be just a resilient energy project, but a place where people can learn about the project and learn about healthy practices for family life, Morua said.
“The electrification piece is the seed. We are keeping an eye out to make sure that people’s needs are taken into account,” she said. “We are developing an actionable plan that we can put into place so the community members are helped by the project.”