In an ideal world, it would be an affordable and practical solution for new electrical generation installations in developing nations to be fueled by low-carbon sources, such as solar, wind, and hydropower. Solar seems perfect for nations with lots of sun exposure, and no efficient way of bringing the traditional electric grid to remote locations. However, there are many unexpected challenges with solar electrification that entrepreneurs are learning about while doing business in these developing nations, including installation and maintenance, infrastructure, and financing. Installation and maintenance, in particular, is often underemphasized, but it is just as important as the other challenges that make solar-powered electrification a tricky prospect.
One major hurdle for installing solar panels is the lack of skilled workers to do the job. Customers for solar panel installations could range from hospitals requiring over 20 kilowatts of power to small villages needing less than 500 watts to power the entire village. Some training is necessary to understand the complexities of these systems. This problem is being approached in a few different ways. Some companies are hiring and training dedicated installation crews to travel around vast areas doing the work. The problem with this arrangement, though, is that traveling between job sites is inefficient, and any downtime becomes very costly for companies trying to keep dedicated crews on payroll. On the other hand, if these companies hire independent installation crews then ensuring quality standards is harder to do. Also, companies are at the whim of the rates that the independent crews set. Not to mention, in some areas there are no independent installation crews for hire. However, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) is stepping in to help. Recently, in Mali, the UNDP paid for the training of female solar technicians to perform installation, maintenance, and service for their entire village. Not only does this solve one of the difficult problems with solar installations, but the training also provides an economic boost for the entire village. Women are now able to earn a living wage to help further support their families.
Another challenge has to do with how transactions to purchase solar panels are structured. Most solar panel installations are a one-time transaction where a customer pays for the panels, equipment and the installation. The company delivers these products, then either installs the panels themselves or hires independent installers. In these deals, it is often unclear who will pay for maintenance when the solar panels break down. Many companies have little financial capacity to bring repair technicians out to remote locations years later to service panels (aside from reputation and customer satisfaction, which some corporations are not necessarily interested in), since most are struggling to make money as it is. Customers are often not in a position to pay much extra for maintenance either since they already paid a large up-front premium for the installation. Hospitals, schools, and businesses cannot afford to continue pouring money into solar systems that unexpectedly break down after two years, when they were supposed to work for twenty years. But if no one is able or willing to pay for maintenance, the panels go unused and wasted.
Also wasted are the high hopes and expectations of the people who purchased the products. Because solar panels can be a novel technology in remote areas, if one person in a small village has a negative experience with solar, it is likely that others in the village will dismiss it. Entrepreneurs should not rush into high-minded plans of remote rural electrification unless they can ensure a very pleasurable and positive experience, because they might spoil the market for future years. If people are skeptical of solar, then they will continue to fall back on outdated diesel generators, which need just as much maintenance and costly fuel. Not to mention, these generators perpetuate adverse climate effects by pouring CO2 into the atmosphere. For these reasons it is especially important for like-minded entrepreneurs to share successful strategies and business models to tackle the problem of remote rural electrification and maintenance.
Currently there are some success stories in the field such as Devergy, and Bboxx that have done a commendable job addressing installation and maintenance issues. Devergy operates by training dedicated workers to service a village-wide micro-grid consisting of a few solar panels. Most entire village installations are not more than one kilowatt. Devergy installs smart meters and the villagers pay for their usage via mobile money. They essentially operate like a modern utility company.
Another wonderful company, Bboxx, uses extensive tracking and monitoring on all of their products to ensure safe delivery and operation for years. These companies show that despite the financial and logistical challenges, it is possible to build installation and maintenance into a successful business model. Bboxx, like other successful companies, provide ample training to locals so that the community can be involved. With better means of sharing best practices and effective models, hopefully future solar companies operating in the developing world can avoid prior mistakes and more efficiently extend access to power to the people they are serving.
As part of the “United Nations Sustainable Energy For All” practicioner network, I had the opportunity to hear about these little known issues straight from the entrepreneur’s who are actively dealing with solar electricfication in developing nations at a recent UN SE4ALL & Power Africa event in New York City.