Mobile Minigrids for Rapid Rural Energy Access

The Challenge

Rural communities in the developing world often require access to high-power equipment, such as for flour milling or welding, but to run these services can require power at the minigrid-scale of more than 10kW. When this equipment is not running, the baseline demand for power is extremely low (a typical solar home system used for lighting in rural Kenya is only 8W, whilst a 10kW minigrid is more than 1000 times this size!). This uneven demand has led to minigrids being notoriously commercially unsustainable, as recovering the high capital expenditure relies on high-power sales to services which do not operate continuously. Our work in rural development throughout East Africa has shown that very high power loads, like milling machines, are sometimes only used one or two days a week during market days in mid-size communities, highlighting this challenge of uneven demand for power.

Our Solution – The Mobile Minigrid:

To facilitate energy access, and address the high-power needs of some in-demand equipment in more small and mid-size communities in Africa, we are developing a mobile ‘minigrid’. This comprises of:

  • A portable trailer that can be towed between off-grid villages on different days of the week, providing power to multiple villages when they need it most (e.g. on market days).
  • 10kW of rapidly deployable solar panels. We are using new flexible solar panel technology to keep the trailer lightweight. These will be folded away during transportation, and once on site and deployed they will provide a canopy for businesses to operate.
  • 20kWh of second-life lithium-ion battery storage capacity, developed by project-partner Aceleron. These innovative recycled batteries are made in Kenya, and unrivalled in environmental sustainability in a battery.
  • Service provision for productive uses requiring expensive equipment. Although small, local businesses can immediately benefit from power provision for services such as salons, lighting and phone charging, it is unlikely that high-power electric equipment such as milling machines and welding machines, already exist in the rural communities we are targeting, nor are the community members likely to have the capital required to purchase the equipment outright. However, this does not mean there is not demand for these services. We will include a range of these high-power and/or high-startup-cost services, including battery charging, printing and photocopying, which might not usually be available. This will additionally improve the payback potential from the mobile minigrid.

Some key benefits of a mobile minigrid include:

  • Providing power to multiple communities with one single installation
  • High payback potential as demand for power is high at each site, resulting in more electricity sales than for a typical minigrid.
  • Quick deployment and portability so if a site is no-longer suitable, for example due to grid-electrification reaching the community, the trailer can easily be used elsewhere and continue to generate profits.

Future Impact

Aside from community high-power service provision, the technology is also applicable for other locations that require rapid access to temporary power, for example in disaster areas or refugee camps, or as a backup for equipment failure in permanent minigrids. On a smaller scale (we are already planning 5kW models), it could also benefit skilled craftsmen/builders who want to be able to use high-power tools such as welding and grinding on building sites in off-grid locations.

The Project Team and Timescales

SVRG is carrying this project out jointly with Kenyan social enterprise Chemolex, and clean technology company Aceleron. This project is funded by InnovateUK, the UK’s Innovation Agency under the Energy Catalyst Round 8 programme.

The project was started in January 2022. Within one year we aim to have a fully-functioning, comprehensively user-tested mobile-minigrid, with a tailored, viable business model, ready for larger-scale production and roll-out in off-grid communities.

Keep posted for more updates!

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