Mini-grids have become the new big deal in supplying electricity to rural areas yet to be reached with grid power 40 years since the start of Malawi Rural Electrification Programme (Marep). In this interview, ANDREW SPEZOWKA, portfolio manager for Resilience and Sustainable Growth at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) shares lessons from the newly commissioned 80-kilowatt Sitolo Solar Mini-grid, Mchinji, with our staff writer JAMES CHAVULA.
How can mini-grids help accelerate the rural electrification which is estimated at just four percent 40 years since Malawi Rural Electrification Programme came into being?
Worldwide, around 1 billion people lack access to electricity, the vast majority in rural areas. Closing the energy access gap for millions of Malawians is at the core of UNDP’s mission. A real opportunity exists to now meet this challenge with private sector solutions for off-grid renewable energy, either via solar-battery mini-grids or solar home systems.
UNDP prioritises clean energy mini-grids to help diversify Malawi’s energy mix. These mini-grids can be fully isolated from the main grid or connected to it. Mini grids supply power to households, businesses, public institutions, and what are termed ‘anchor clients’, such as telecom towers and large agricultural processing facilities. They are designed to provide high-quality, reliable electricity. A new, ‘third generation’ of mini- grids has emerged, which are solar-hybrids, incorporating the latest technologies such as smart meters and remote monitoring systems, and are typically designed to interconnect with the main grid. To date, UNDP has supported these type of off-grid systems and welcomes that Malawi is already moving towards grid-connected systems through purchase power agreements with independent power producers.
What are the main lessons that you have learnt from the implementation of the Sitolo Solar PV Mini-grid project in Mchinji recently?
There are several lessons UNDP and its partners have learned during the implementation of the 81.6kWp solar PV mini-grid in the Sitolo Project. Firstly, there is tremendous demand for electricity. Local people were so excited to see renewable energy powering their maize mills, welding machines, grinding machines, refrigerators and so many households for 24 hours a day and 7 days a week.
We also saw that demand for electricity from nearby villages has peaked after power was switched on at Sitolo. People who have never had access to electricity immediately recognize its transformative benefits. New business opportunities can be exploited and existing entreprises can accelerate their growth.
In Sitolo, a local tailor informed us that he is now able to extend his working hours to meet deadlines. Teachers at the local primary school have expressed that now with electricity they no longer wish to be transferred anywhere else. In fact, more generally, we see that access to electricity is an incentive to people who provide public services, be it in education or health, because it makes their lives so much easier. Local people in the project area are now demanding better mobile network coverage since they can now easily charge their phones in their houses.
Moving forward, it is important to dispel myths about mini-grids and improve awareness about their strong business case.
What is the power of partnerships in scaling up access to electricity in areas excluded from the grid?
Scaling up access to energy requires close collaboration among a multitude of stakeholders, from regulators, utilities, public and private investors and, most importantly, communities and end users. The Sitolo clean energy mini-grid is an excellent example of the power of partnerships. Community Energy Malawi, a social enterprise, serves as the mini-grid operator. They facilitated the creation of a local management board with the community to ensure local commitment to the mini-grid, while also ensuring a strong sense of local ownership for what has quickly become an essential community asset. Today, Sitolo’s clean energy mini-grid can deliver reliable power to over 960 households and local enterprises.
So far, what off-grid projects is UNDP supporting and how do you intend to replicate the Sitolo project in other potential sites?
UNDP will continue supporting the government in promoting scaleable off-grid energy solutions that reduce the energy gap, encourage private sector innovation, and deepen the renewable energy market for local players.
We are supporting four more mini-grids located in Mulanje, Kavuzi and Usingini in Nkhatabay, and in Livingstonia. UNDP continues to work with partners to replicate commercially-viable clean mini-grids across the country. To this end, UNDP is working with the Malawi Rural Electrification Programme [Marep] to help the government deliver on its Rural Electrification Master Plan.
As outlined in the Sustainable Energy Investment Study commissioned by the government, and undertaken in partnership with the UN, Malawi is at a crucial inflection point where ambitious action can drive energy access.
UNDP is committed to continue to work with government, other development partners, investors and the private sector to converge on a shared agenda that empowers progress through access to clean, affordable and reliable energy. n