In this episode, host Mathias Steck, Service Area Manager for Renewables Northern Europe at DNV, is joined by Jeanette Mwendwa Gitobu, Director of Women in Wind (WiW) at the Global Wind Energy Council (GWEC), to explore the role renewable energy mini-grids are playing in supporting the energy transition and how they’re providing greater energy security in more remote communities across the world. Jeanette shares her insights on the framework that’s needed for renewable mini-grid projects to be a success – including understanding the energy needs of different communities, creating affordable tariffs, and the need to upskill the local work force – and the positive impact of mini-grid solutions on job opportunities.
MATHIAS STECK Hello and welcome to the twelfth series of the DNV Talks Energy podcast. I'm your host, Mathias Steck. Previously in the series, we have explored the changing energy needs of people around the world and began to take a look at how people are taking ownership of their choices. I'm delighted to be joined by this week's guest, Jeanette Gitobu, the Director of Women in Wind - a Global Leadership Programme - and Policy Advisor for Africa at the Global Wind Energy Council. Together, we will discuss micro-generation and how it is empowering remote communities around the world. We hope you enjoy the episode.
Many thanks for joining me today, Jeanette. Before we start, it would be great if you could introduce yourself, the organization you work with, the Global Wind Energy Council and your role in the Women in Wind Leadership Programme.
JEANETTE GITOBU Absolutely, Matthias. And it's a pleasure to be joining DNV for this podcast, and I am sincerely grateful for the opportunity. The Global Wind Energy Council, or GWEC for short, is the international trade organization for the Wind Power Industry. It is a member-based organization with over 1500 companies, organizations and institutions in more than 80 countries spanning from Latin America, the United States, all European wind markets, India, China and now Africa. GWEC’s mission is to ensure that wind power establishes itself as the answer to today's energy challenges, providing substantial environmental and economic benefits. And GWEC achieves this by working at the highest international political levels to create a better policy environment for wind power. To address your second question and give an overview of my role in Women and in Wind, Global Leadership Programme. The programme itself was established in 2019 as a response to the call for more consideration of gender and climate policy in the wind industry.
My role is to be responsible for the strategy and success of the programme by designing and implementing its curriculum while working across partners to deliver a diverse and multi-dimensional opportunity for participants to benefit from.
The result is a programme that targets participants for from emerging markets in the global south, and it is designed to support their pathway to leadership positions, foster a global network of mentorship, knowledge-sharing and empowerment, in addition to engaging individuals, companies and international institutions, in a collective call for equal representation and participation of women in the wind and renewable energy sector, including STEM, senior and board management roles and decision-making roles. Equal pay for women within corporate structures, equal opportunities and access for women working within the formal sector, and also actors with power including the public sector, senior industry leaders, individual, corporate and essentially to try and work with all these groups to commit to smart targets to concretely increase gender equity in wind energy.
MATHIAS STECK That sounds like a very important and interesting programme, but today we will be discussing micro-generation and in particular mini grids and the impact these have for those living in remote communities. But before we do that, maybe let's begin by explaining what a mini grid is and the different types available. Can you elaborate on this?
JEANETTE GITOBU So a mini grid, by definition, is a set of electricity generators and possibly energy storage systems interconnected to a distribution network that supplies electricity to a localized group of customers. The key distinction between mini grids is that they usually operate independently to the national transmission grid, and they are relatively small-scale in terms of the electricity that they generate. And in my opinion, small-scale to me means anything from 10 kilowatts to 10 megawatts. In regards toIn regard to the second part of the your question about the different types of mini grids available, in my professional experience there are four different examples that I have seen implemented. There is solar, there is wind, there's hydro, and then there's also hybrid mini grids.
To give a breakdown of these different mini grids and how they differ from each other. For example, a solar mini grid, as the name implies, uses solar PV panels to generate electricity. The rise in popularity of solar mini grids is due to the falling cost of the panels themselves worldwide, as technology advances and production costs decrease. However, since they can generate electricity only in the daytime, battery storage is recommended as a supplement to meet the peak demand at night. The second example is wind mini grids, as the same name implies, it uses the kinetic energy generated by the wind that blows through the turbine to produce electrical electricity. These mini grids are site-specific and also depend on the wind speeds so these can be put up everywhere in the world. And then the third example is hydro mini grids. Whereas, unlike large hydro power, hydro mini grids do not require a dam or a reservoir for water storage. They are mostly run off river and work when the water flows from higher elevation to the turbines at a lower elevation point via a penstock. And then once that water flows from a higher place to a lower place, the turbines then rotate to generate electricity. And one limitation is that electricity generated depends on the water flow and also requires a certain elevation. Therefore, hydro mini grids are restricted into geographies that are able to accommodate these requirements. However, on the flip side of this, in my professional experience, hydro mini grids have the lowest levelized cost of generation and is at par with grid generation in addition to having minimal environmental impacts. So, these hydro mini grids do offer a lot of benefits to them, in addition to having challenges.
And finally, the last option that is available is hybrid mini grids and these grids are created by combining renewable energy sources such as wind, solar or hydro with other sources, which include non-renewable such as diesel or even other renewable sources, such as biomass that can be combined to create a mini grid that has these two renewable sources available for them to use.
MATHIAS STECK And can you see regional differences? Certainly, we must if we talk about hydro, but in how common certain types of energy generation are to support the localized grids?
JEANETTE GITOBU Definitely, there’re definitely regional differences that happen mainly due to a) the source of renewable sources that are available. For example, if we are to go to the northern part of Africa, solar would be a key input to consider because of just how much solar is available in that region itself. Whereas in other places, hydro may be the option, and in other places, wind may be the option, but I think for me in my professional experience, it has always been to ensure that the project of the source of renewable energy that you do end up picking for the community, is one that a) meets the community needs that are required within that area and b) are able to maximize on the sources that are available.
MATHIAS STECK So how common would you say are mini grids across the remote communities today and what would you expect how that develops going forward?
JEANETTE GITOBU In my opinion, mini grids are a common solution implemented in the global south, and the global south is defined as, for example, Latin America, Africa, Asia, emerging markets essentially, albeit the definition of the global south. I believe there was a 2019 report by World Bank and ASMAP ESMAP or to define ASMAPESMAP, the Energy Sector Management Assistance Programme, titled Mini Grids for half a Million million peoplePeople, and the report found that at least 19,000 mini grids were installed in 154 134 countries globally, representing a total investment of 28 billion US dollars and providing electricity to about 47 million people.
Additional findings were that Asia had the most mini grids installed, with about 9,300 mini grids installed at the time of when the report was published. While Africa had the largest share of planned mini grid installations, about 4,000 mini grids in the pipeline to be installed. I think for me, the decision to determine which solution is the best boils down to the long-term goals of the solution and by answering two key questions. The first question would be, what is the level of electricity service needed? And the second question is what are the costs of providing that level of service using different means? There are instances where mini grids are not always the most cost-effective choice for rural electrification and in some cases, national grid extension also, the home systems are better investments compared to installing a mini grid. For me, mini grids are most likely to be cost effective in mid density communities that are far away from the national grid, where, for example, the retail cost of electricity from the national grid is high and in areas with reliable supplies of renewable energy sources.
Mini grids are most cost effective for applications that require mid-level amounts of electricity, in my opinion, and to determine the best electrification approach possible, I would recommend that product project developers need to consider the level of electricity services needed and the projected low profile of the grid and also the cost required to actually put up this mini grid.
MATHIAS STECK So let's imagine that a rural community that has decided that it wants to create its own grid and generate renewable energy, how do they actually go about this?
JEANETTE GITOBU First and foremost, I recommend that the community engage a well vetted mini grid project developer with a history of implementing projects in the past. That is mainly to ensure that they know what they're doing and they're able to really address the needs of the community. My second recommendation would be community needs assessment needs to be done mainly to understand the energy needs and the capacity needed. Some of the questions to consider would be, for example, how much electricity does the community need? What are the customers using the electricity for? When is electricity needed? It is during the day. Is it at night? How are energy needs likely to change over time? What are the technical, institutional, financial or management related capacity needs? And is there also the possibility of having a skills transfer to ensure that these communities are able to maintain their grids on their own, not without having to have, to consistently seek external assistance to maintain these grids? I think once these parameters have been defined, the community is on the right path towards considering if mini grids is the best solution for them.
MATHIAS STECK And they find this is quite an interesting thought about planning this because I guess you want to give access to electricity to these remote communities. And one motivation to do this is that you hope they have a good economic development and they may grow. How futureproof is this concept? If then really, community is successful, is it then something they will later be able to connect to the national grid or maybe connect multiple mini grids together to have a sustainability thought in that development?
JEANETTE GITOBU I think the approach itself is, it's a worthwhile approach to consider, especially in rural communities, where they are very far away from the national grid. If we are to look at, for example, installation costs compared to the cost of putting up a mini grid, that's now the questions that we have to answer is a mini grid a viable option itself to consider. But I think in terms of sustainability and connected mini grids together, mini grids are intended to be a short term. If we were to look at, for example, general generation planning in the country, it is always best to always connect to the national grid, mainly because we're able to save on costs due to the economies of scale to consider. So, I think mini grids for communities that aren't able at this moment in time to access the national grid are a viable solution. But like I previously mentioned, I think it's also worthwhile to consider other options. For example, in the event that we have a long-term plan in a country and they have plans to install electricity in these regions,. hHow quickly can that be done and is it possible to expedite that process once we've done a cost-based analysis to understand that situation?
MATHIAS STECK One statistic actually tells us that about 60 percent of the mini grid projects in sub-Saharan Africa were abandoned within just six months of installation. In your opinion, what are the reasons for these failed projects and what maybe external support would be required to make this more successful?
JEANETTE GITOBU That's a great question. I think for me, the way I would answer that question is that communities are usually both the customers and beneficiaries of mini grid projects. A project that works in one community might fail in another and involving the community helps the project meet its local energy needs while creating new opportunities for improved livelihoods. I think to answer the reasons why 60 percent of renewable mini grid projects in sub-Saharan Africa were abandoned within just six months of installation, I would probably propose a three-tier answer to that.
The first would be community support from the beginning is necessary to really have the project be successful. The grid needs to be designed to meet the community needs and interests, and that's the only way to be able to have a successful project is that so long as the project objectives meet the committee needs, that can definitely increase the chances of success for that mini grid. The second answer would also be that tariffs need to be affordable while designed in a way that ensures revenue coverage covers projects expenses. The tariff is highly important, mainly because it's what ensures a mini grid is sustainable in the long-term. So, if tariffs are to be successful, they really do need to be affordable and designed in a way that they’re able to cover their project expenses.
And the third answer is skills transfer is very critical to the local community to ensure that the community can be able to independently maintain the grid. To give a practical example, if for example, a project developer brings in external contractors to be able to put up the grid and then they go away to where they came from, and the grid crashes, and the community itself is not having the skills to be able to maintain that grid or to repair that grid as it needs,. I think that also contributes towards the unsuccessful rate of mini grid projects failing after installation.
MATHIAS STECK Yes. And I want to come back to the skills in a minute, but we talked about reasons for failure. But of course, there are many successful projects, and I know you brought a few examples. Can you just share some of these examples with us of successful projects?
JEANETTE GITOBU Sure. I'm part of the USA Aid Network through the Power Africa Young Woman and African Power Leadership Network. And just through my interactions with USA.S. Aid and also some of my own professional experience, I can give three examples from Asia, Africa and Latin America. So, for example, starting with Asia, the West Bengal Renewable Energy Development Agency, a government agency in India has created local cooperatives as its partners in mini grid developments and together with communities. , the agency itself has developed 23 mini grids, serving over 10,000 customers throughout West Bengal in India. Another example is Nepal's Alternative Energy Promotion Centre, which has helped more than 2,000 hydro-powered mini grids, providing 30 megawatts of electricity to 1.5 million people since 1996. And it's the centre itself that supports renewable energy development through subsidies, technical assistance and training, and productive uses of energy.
To move now to the African continent itself, then where hydro Hydro and Renewable Electrification Project in Tanzania provides a total of 21.5 gigawatts at least of electricity to more than 2200 consumers in 17 villages, a local tea and coffee factory and the national grid, at the same time. And the Rift Valley Corporation installed the 4 megawatt facility in 2012, with funding from the African, Caribbean and Pacific European Union Energy Facility.
And the other example and the last example from Latin America, that I have seen, was a project in Colombia, spearheaded by Base, a Swiss non-for-profit foundation and a specialized partner of United Nation's environment, where they provided, I believe, 10 million U.S. dollars in concessional financing from international donors. And just the name of the project itself escapes me right now. But off the top of my head, those are the three examples that I can be able to provide are successful mini grid projects around the world.
MATHIAS STECK So, over the past couple of episodes, we have discussed the workforce within the energy industry and how it is evolving, and you just mentioned the requirement for upskilling local people also to maintain such a mini grid. I think if we talk about mini grids, we can even look a bit broader at this question because once the community has electricity, so many new things are possible. So, in your experience, what is the positive impact of these mini grid solutions in terms of job opportunities for local people?
JEANETTE GITOBU The beauty of having electricity is that it provides many more opportunities that may not have been available before in these communities. That could range anything from education, that could range to even opening new businesses opportunities, therefore driving even more opportunity for employment. Even improving the local lives of the individuals that are living within these communities.
For example, hospitals require a large amount of electricity to be able to run properly and to service the needs of the community. Therefore, having access to electricity even via a mini grid can be able now to improve the health care services that are available within the area itself. Therefore, for example, doctors that wish to find opportunities to come and practice medicine are able to get job opportunities to come within the community. Locals themselves are able now to maximize on the electricity that is available, for example, to feed businesses such as restaurants, such as laundry areas. I mean, whatever business opportunity that decides to come within the community itself decides to open up, electricity definitely serves as a benefit to be able to maximize on that opportunity. Even when it comes to education, it means now that students and children and individuals who are in the education sector can be able now to study and have opportunities now to be able to study at night at the same time, instead of having to rely mainly on sunlight.
This question actually touches strongly into my heart because my parents as they were growing up, especially my mom, did not have access to electricity at her home, so she would use kerosene lamps, which of course have a lot of health effects on the human body itself. Just having to smell the fumes coming from the kerosene lamp itself to do her homework at night. Thankfully, she is OK, but there're definitely harmful effects from using these kinds of sources of light to be able to have now the human impact itself, whereas these fumes are not the healthiest to inhale on a daily basis.
So, I think for me, I'd definitely say that even when it comes to job creation, mini grids not only provide an opportunity for engineers and for their local community itself to step in and be able to take an active part in maintaining these grids, therefore creating job opportunities for the community itself. I think on a broader level at the same time, for example, health care and education, off the top of my head as practical examples, electricity is definitely able to improve the livelihood of these areas. Mainly because it's able to able to act as a source that itthey can use to move themselves and where they are now into the future that they wish to envision for themselves.
MATHIAS STECK Final question for you. Jeanette, what needs to be done to accelerate this to give more people access to electricity?
JEANETTE GITOBU First and foremost, I'd definitely say a needs assessment needs to be done in all these different areas and the willingness to be able to go into these rural communities and understand what exactly do these communities need. As I previously mentioned, mini grids are a solution towards providing electricity to these rural areas where they're not as close to the national grid. But I think a long-term solution would be for policymakers and government officials to really come together and to see what would it take to really extend the national grid to these regions to ensure that we're able to provide these services to all of our people?+++++Mini grids definitely serve as a solution, and I highly advocate for them to be considered as an option. But I think in terms of a long term, sustainable solution, it's definitely up to the policymakers to be able to just sit down and to understand how can we be able to meet the needs of this community to be able to ensure that they're able to receive electricity and to be able to ensure that they can maximize on it and improve their lives, based off the benefits that electricity brings to these regions.
MATHIAS STECK Many thanks Jeanette for your time today, it was really great that you shared all these insights into this really important topic, and it has been a real pleasure talking to you.
JEANETTE GITOBU Thank you so much for the opportunity, and I wish you a very pleasant day.
MATHIAS STECK It was fascinating to speak to Jeanette about the role of micro-generation in supporting remote communities worldwide, sharing her own personal experience over the benefits of mini grids. She told us about how, in addition to providing energy security, they are supporting job creation and boosting community health by transitioning away from harmful emissions.
Join us next week as we focus in more detail on changing people's habits and how individual decisions are influenced.
To hear more podcasts in the series, please visit dnv.com/talksenergy.