Experts root for more off-grid power funding to spur access

Off-grid power access, including of solar home systems and mini-grids, plays a key role in Rwanda’s ambitious target to extend power to 70 per cent of the population in the medium-term, Morris Kayitare, the director of primary and social energy development at Rwanda Energy Group (REG), has said.
Access to renewable energy sources, like solar power, is crucial for Rwanda to attain its power targets. / File
Access to renewable energy sources, like solar power, is crucial for Rwanda to attain its power targets. / File

Off-grid power access, including of solar home systems and mini-grids, plays a key role in Rwanda’s ambitious target to extend power to 70 per cent of the population in the medium-term, Morris Kayitare, the director of primary and social energy development at Rwanda Energy Group (REG), has said.

Kayitare added that renewable energy sources are instrumental in meeting the country’s energy needs and, therefore, should not be overlooked.

“Off-grid power is now part of the national rural electrification strategy and has seen a strong growth in the last few years, with some 50,000 solar systems installed across the country to date, representing 2 per cent electrification. This number will increase rapidly as companies, such as BBOXX, Mobisol, and MeshPower continue to scale up,” Kayitare said.

It is expected that off-grid will scale 20 times in the period 2015-2018, which can only be made possible with adequate levels of financing and investment flows, favourable policies and coordinated efforts among the public and private sectors, and the development partners supporting energy work in Rwanda. He said all districts across the country are connected to the national grid, with coverage for hospitals at 100 per cent, 85 per cent for health centres, and 92 per cent sector offices.

“The pace has been promising, with levels of generation from mixed sources, including hydro-power, thermal and methane gas, growing year on year,” he said. However, given the challenging landscape and remoteness of rural populations in Rwanda, off-grid power sources are crucial to ensure all Rwandans access electricity, he added.

Access to power is at about 25 per cent in Rwanda, according to the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook for this year, and the government is seeking to increase this to 70 per cent by 2018, and 100 per cent by 2020.

Experts say these targets require high levels of investment in off-grid electrification, which is supposed to make up 22 per cent of access in the next two years.

Kayitare was speaking at a recent seminar on off-grid solar that brought together stakeholders in the energy sector, government officials and experts to discuss the future of Rwanda’s electrification efforts at the University of Rwanda’s College of Science and Technology in Kigali. During the event, Iwona Bisaga, a PhD candidate at University College London, in the UK, presented early findings of her research on users of solar power that she is conducting in the Northern Province in collaboration with BBOXX, a manufacturer and distributor of solar systems in East Africa. According to the findings, people using off-grid solar power said it provides a permanent solution for their households energy needs, calling for provision of adequate and reliable services.

Speaking at the seminar, Simon Rolland, the project manager at EnDev Rwanda, said the off-grid energy providers need to employ market-driven approaches to ensure suitability and boost uptake of the services by the population, especially in rural areas. He, however, said the sector experiences challenges, including access to working capital and currency fluctuations, calling for more efforts to raise local debt to finance projects in off-grid power provision “if the sector is to hit its targets”.

Justus Mucyo, the BBOXX Rwanda managing director, reechoed the same sentiment, saying access to funds is key to unlocking the off-grid solar potential in the country.

Meanwhile, experts have called for a ‘well-defined’ policy on the implementation of the rural electrification strategy, saying the lack of such guidelines created risks and unfavourable market distortions. They cited the infiltration of cheaper and poor quality solar systems entering the market from distributors offering no warranty or after-sales services. “This can have a damaging effect on the users and reverse the gains so far made because no support is offered to users of such equipment in case of system failures,” they said.

In a related development, Laurent van Houcke, the BBOXX chief operating officer, said the company will extend energy access to more rural areas. “With end-to-end digitised operations, we are hoping for efficient growth that will provide reliable energy service in all districts.”

Goal number 10 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals seeks to achieve universal access to reliable, modern energy by 2030. The International Energy Agency estimates that nearly $1 trillion of investment or $49 billion per year is required to achieve this goal. Off-the-grid solar sector has, to date, attracted $511 million of investment, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance report.

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