SustainSolar: Switch On for the First EASE Mini-grid (Malawi)
Who, What & Where
- 12kW solar generation unit providing high-quality 220 V power to 60 customers for domestic and commercial use including lights, phone charging, TVs, fridges as well as other productive uses
- Mthembanji, Dedza District, Malawi
Launched in 2018, SustainSolar strives to respond to the needs of emerging markets with turnkey technology suited for various applications that require a decentralised, clean and dependable power supply. Our containerised, pre-installed solar systems are equipped with top-quality solar PV modules and electronics including lithium-ion batteries and come in three standardised yet adjustable product configurations from small to large to suit a wide range of energy needs. With growing activities, a good presence on the African continent, an expanding network of partners and the implementation of new projects, SustainSolar is a preferred equipment supplier for mini-grid, off-grid, hybrid fuel saving as well as mobile and rapid deployment solar applications.
The project addresses the challenges of energy access in Malawi, where less than 12% of the population are connected to the national grid, limiting development and economic growth. Decentralised solar mini-grids offer a low carbon and reliable source of electricity in areas unlikely to receive a grid connection in the near future. Bringing a stable and low carbon electricity provision to the previously unconnected village of Mthembanji, Dedza District, this mini-grid will be the first experience of wired household electricity and has potential for significant social and economic impact in the village.
Being the first of its kind in Malawi, the mini-grid is cheaper, quicker to implement and potentially more financially sustainable than larger capacity mini-grids currently deployed in the country. This new method of rural electrification also allows for more electricity and a higher impact than the solar home systems offered on the market.
Packed in an insulated 20 ft shipping container, the system comprises quality inverters and lithium ion batteries from German manufacturers SMA and Tesvolt. The SMA online portal allows for remote access to system performance and generation output, as well as alerting system managers to any problems to provide swift troubleshooting on the ground.
Having designed the system architecture and a sustainable business model, Strathclyde and United Purpose worked with SustainSolar, Malawian electrical contractor BNG Electrical and smart meters provider Steamaco (UK) to complete the mini-grid installation.
Project Financing and Costs
The mini-grid deployment comes after several years of Scottish Government funded collaboration between University of Strathclyde and United Purpose, an international development and emergency relief organization headquartered in the UK.
Following delays due to Covid-19 restrictions, the installation team finally completed the distribution grid and customer premises wiring. PV modules were installed and wiring checks completed before the system went live, with customers switching on lights for the first time. A week of testing involved monitoring battery state of charge to assess whether the design assumption of load and system wiring were correct, and dealing with technical issues getting the smart meters online, as well as calibrating mobile networks between the UK and Malawi. All hurdles were overcome thanks to resourceful local teams from United Purpose and BNG, with coordinated remote international technical support from Strathclyde, Steamaco and SustainSolar.
The site was visited by representatives from the Malawi Energy Regulatory Authority (MERA), who were impressed with the quality of the installation and innovative technology used in the system. MERA approval has been granted for the sales of electricity which has now begun. A full MERA technical assessment is pending before a registration certificate will be granted.
Premises have been installed with LED lights and AC sockets to use appliances like fridges, phone charging and TVs. This will be the first electrical connection for many of the village and customers have been given training on safe use of electricity. Training is also being provided to encourage Productive Uses of Energy where small businesses can earn an income from using the electricity.
Strathclyde will continue to monitor the demand, system performance, and customer payments to refine the system for maximum economic and technical efficiency. Continued community engagement with regular monitoring and evaluation will give the team an insight on the social impact the mini-grid is having in the community, and help to refine and improve the business plan.
Funding is secured through EASE for another mini-grid in Dedza, with sites identified for implementation and plans in place to secure funding for further pilot mini-grids of different sizes. Detailed monitoring and evaluation of the pilot mini-grids will provide key information on energy demand and operational costs to inform the wider business model for scaling up mini-grid operations nationally.