Distributed Energy

Powering Africa

Are better batteries the missing link?

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In Ghana, “dumsor,or “off and on,” is an energy supply issue that businesses contend with every day. To stay in operation, they must rely heavily on backup generators. Power shortages on farms sometimes cut revenues in half, costing Ghana’s economy about 2% of its GDP.  Energy-related issues are widely considered the most significant barrier to Africa’s economic development.  

The World Bank estimates that, with continuous energy supplies, sub-Saharan Africa’s economies could grow by two percentage points a year faster than they do today. But electricity grids rarely stretch beyond large cities and the Africa Progress Panel estimates that expanding grid power across Africa would cost $63 billion a year until 2030. Supplying reliable power to an estimated 620 million people without access to energy is a daunting challenge.

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One solution lies in microgrids. By installing rooftop solar installations and developing mini grid systems that consist of solar panels and small rechargeable batteries, experts believe that Africa could potentially bypass polluting fossil fuels and fixed electricity grid structure.

However, rooftop solar systems produce limited amounts of energy. While they can power shops at night and keep medicines refrigerated in clinics, they aren’t able to power big industrial equipment such as energy-intensive welders or mills, which require larger power supplies and bigger batteries.

Furthermore, some contend that improvements in battery technology are necessary for Africa’s energy advancement. Sam Duby, Director of Research and Development at SteamaCo., told PV Tech recently that lead-acid batteries are holding back the microgrid energy revolution.

While lead-acid batteries provide energy storage for a majority of solar microgrids in rural Africa, from Duby’s perspective, they are less than ideal for storing solar-generated power on a microgrid due to cycling issues. It seems that the deeper lead-acid batteries are drained, the shorter their lifetime becomes. Therefore, in order to ensure capacity, end-users have to install a battery bank with higher amounts of usable energy storage than they will actually use, while only minimally discharging the batteries. This is not only space-intensive; it can double the cost of installed equipment.

“Better energy storage is a relatively low-hanging fruit and actors across sectors—donors, development banks, entrepreneurs—need to consider ways to solve this core technology challenge in order for microgrids to scale as a viable energy access solution.”

What energy storage innovations do you see as capable of catalyzing Africa’s microgrid development? DE_bug_web

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