According to the International Energy Agency, there are 1.3 billion people who do not have access to energy.
While this is a staggering statistic, it’s even more disconcerting when realizing 85 percent of these people live in rural areas, mostly in Sub-Saharan Africa.
While many different organizations attempt to find solutions to energy accessibility in Africa, Électricité de France (EDF) has been working in the developing world since 1990 to bring electricity to those without.
The utility’s strategy is to form small, local companies that can serve communities better. EDF is focused on bringing both large and small scale renewable installations to rural communities.
With its efforts spanning the continent in 5 different countries (Botswana, Mali, Morocco, Senegal, and South Africa), how is EDF effectively managing its Africa operations?
As previously discussed, the issue with energy accessibility in Africa is a great one. When looking at the big picture, it can be easy to get overwhelmed and view fixing the problem as an impossibility. EDF is avoiding this by keeping its efforts focused and more narrow, rather than broad and encompassing.
This doesn’t mean its efforts are small, though.
The utility is realistic, yet optimistic in setting goals. In the 5 countries in which it is working, a clear objective is established. Through collection of data and an assessment of the energy situation, EDF establishes the scale of the work it will perform.
In Botswana, the area of need is a specific one. Botswana’s energy infrastructure is actually in workable condition, though barely more than half of the country’s rural areas have energy access. The country’s national utility, Botswana Power Corporation (BPC), selected EDF to helm efforts to power up these portions of the country.
EDF established the scope of the issue and determined a manageable, achievable goal: to bring electricity to 400,000 people via renewable sources over the next 10 years, with an end date of 2021. The utility set a goal of serving 50-70,000 customers by the end of the development.
These goals are scaled according to the needs of the country, and with relation to what’s achievable. In Senegal, where only 23 percent of the rural population has access to electricity, the goal for the development efforts is to supply 180,000 people with electricity.
Unlike its work in Botswana, the project in Senegal is more tightly focused, specifically on the Kaffrine-Tambacounda-Kédougou concession. This concession accounts for more than 2,000 rural villages in the central and southeastern portions of the country.
While clear objectives are important in EDF’s Africa initiatives, it’s only one portion of what makes it effective.
In the countries it serves, EDF isn’t attempting to build or re-build national grids. As it has been seen across the rural world, the key to energy accessibility lies in smaller, localized grids and personal forms of energy.
In Morocco, the plan is to bring electricity to 161,000 people, or 23,000 customers. To do this, the method of choice is small-scale, often single-home solar. This allows energy to reach villages and hamlets off the grid, since the installations are powered by a single PV battery.
A similar approach is being taken in Mali, but extends to businesses and schools. Installing PV panels and using them to power these facilities allows for rural communities to have access to services they would not have previously because of power inaccessibility. Also being constructed are low-voltage micro-grids using power from small diesel-fired facilities, which brings electricity to a large majority of the villages slated for upgrade.
All of these efforts involve little physical infrastructure, though these smaller grids and single-home installations require a significant amount of manpower.
Despite being the name at the forefront, EDF isn’t the party directly involved with rural electrification in Africa. The company’s current approach to this challenge began in the 1990s with the creation of the Rural Electricity Service Company (RESCO) model.
This involves the creation of what EDF terms as a DSC, or Decentralized Service Company, to serve a community rather than the massive utility. This way, each DSC can tailor its approach to the regions needs and essentially be run by those who know the region best.
“The strength of these DSCs is that they are integrated in the local socio-economic fabric: they are companies governed by local law, employing local managers and personnel,” the company writes. “The difficulty involves designing sustainable projects, in other words, those capable of financing themselves and taking responsibility for their own development. Sustaining decentralized services companies in disadvantaged regions, where customers use little energy and have low financial resources, is particularly difficult. It requires the creation of a specific economic model, combining subsidies and appropriate tariffs.”
EDF’s role in the process is to take the helm in the short term, and dial things back in the long, letting the DSCs take over.
“EDF is involved as a ‘start-up aid,’ providing the capital and skills required for the creation and operation of these companies,” the company writes. “When the viability of a DSC is guaranteed, EDF transfers its entire stake to its local partner, who will be responsible for the long-term running of the company.”
Couple this with aid and energy-friendly policies from local governments, and EDFs efforts have ultimately been successful thus far.
At last measure in 2012, EDF has helped more than 450,000 people access energy. Many of these projects are still ongoing, but for now, the model of starting with a clear objective, thinking small, and most importantly, thinking locally, seem to be working well for the utility.