Energy access with a future: minigrid markets

Posted on Mar 14, 2019
Energy access with a future: minigrid markets

We are delighted to announce that we’ve been awarded grant support through the Energy Catalyst programme of Innovate UK and the Department for International Development, to make commercial trials of the new product EMBLEM in Rwanda and Nepal. After a successful proof-of-concept trial on the Isle of Iona, Scotland, we have teamed up with local solar energy providers Dassy Enterprise (Rwanda), Gham Power (Nepal) and our UK partners Scene Connect and Connected Energy to test a new approach to energy access infrastructure.

Our aim is to unlock the potential of electricity mini-grids in the Global South by empowering people to own their own renewable energy whilst giving confidence to mini-grid providers to make longer term investment decisions.

The United Nations aims to achieve universal access to electricity by 2030. Politicians say that they’re making progress in delivering that. But what they call ‘access’ doesn’t necessarily mean availability or reliability. For example, in many rural areas of Odisha, India where the national grid cannot reach, local minigrids provide each household just one light bulb’s worth of electricity. And that light bulb is available just 4-8 hours a day. This is typical across much of the Global South, and is a long way from the kind of electricity ‘access’ that we get in the UK.

In places like Odisha, just like in the UK, electricity demand is increasing as wealth increases, whilst simultaneously the cost of off-grid consumer appliances, such as fans to keep cool and fridges to store medicines, are becoming cheaper. But to service this rising electricity demand mini-grids need to be upgraded which is beyond householders’ means and is too risky an investment for the private sector.

To address these challenges, Scene Connect and Swanbarton have developed an evolvable mini-grid and trading system, “EMBLEM”, that supports organic incremental expansion without large investment steps.

The EMBLEM minigrid begins with a central generation and storage unit that delivers electricity to connected end users. End users will be able to buy their own affordably small generation or storage assets and connect them to the minigrid. The trading system means that when they produce more power than they can self-consume, they can share the benefits of their investment with their neighbours, who pay them for the power. The prices that they trade at aren’t set arbitrarily by a central authority: they’re negotiated locally in real time, and so they directly reflect the varying local abundance of energy.

EMBLEM gives domestic and small business users an income stream from energy where there presently is none. It enables organic growth in minigrid capacity of minigrids, so that end users can gradually improve their mini-grid. It gives mini-grid investors confidence to make long term investments because they know that there will be an escalating payback.  

The Innovate UK funding will allow us to continue technical development of our Energy Trading Platform, Scene’s and Connected Energy’s novel hardware and IoT technology and robustly test it before taking the product to market.

Innovate UK is part of UK Research and Innovation, a non-departmental public body funded by UK government. It drives productivity and economic growth by supporting businesses to develop and realise the potential of new ideas, including those from the UK’s world-class research base.

The Department for International Development is a UK government department responsible for administering overseas aid. The goal of the department is “to promote sustainable development and eliminate world poverty”.

Photo of Bhubaneswar by IM3847.