Navigant Research Blog

Village Nanogrids Fuel Mobile Networks

Taylor Embury — April 1, 2014

There have been numerous efforts to electrify remote parts of the developing world.  Typically, these have come in the form of philanthropic ventures, with little to no expectation of a return on investment, using distributed energy systems that were often out of touch with the consumers’ energy needs, as well as their capacity to maintain the systems.  As a result, these efforts have been largely ineffective.  More recently, some for-profit companies (mostly mobile network operators) have found that a business case exists for investing in distributed energy for rural off-grid communities – by implementing systems that are much more in tune with customer needs and capabilities.  These systems usually take the form of nanogrids, which are described in the recent Navigant Research report, Nanogrids, and in my colleague Peter Asmus’ recent blog.

For mobile network operators (MNOs) in emerging markets, such as MTN, Vodacom, and Safaricom in Africa and Digicel in Latin America, the challenge is that there are millions of mobile customers without access to the electricity grid; approximately 259 million, according to a recent GSMA report.  For these customers, the cost of charging their phones can represent up to 50% of their total mobile expenditures (airtime plus charging costs), so their phones are only turned on when absolutely necessary, in order to conserve battery life.  Since MNOs make money when the phones are in use, it’s in their interest to make charging convenient and inexpensive enough that conserving battery life becomes an afterthought.  MNOs are quickly finding that distributed nanogrids, such as 10 watt solar home systems (SHS), are the cheapest, most effective way to maximize cell phone usage by existing customers, as well as to bring more customers online.  To stimulate the spread of these systems, MNOs are starting to form commercial partnerships with local vendors of portable solar products.

Friendly Local Utilities

In Uganda, MTN has partnered with Fenix International to provide MTN airtime vendors with a Fenix ReadySet solar-powered battery kit that charges phones and provides LED lighting for the vendor station, allowing them to stay open longer.  The ReadySet has turned MTN vendors into micro-utilities in their communities, creating additional revenue from phone charging and increased mobile money transactions, as well as savings for the vendor from using the LED light.  MTN is also repackaging the ReadySet as the ReadyPay Power System, which is now available to all its customers on a pay-as-you-go basis.  Similarly, Digicel Haiti partnered with Solengy in 2011 to install over 400 solar-powered street lamps and phone charging stations across Haiti.  Each station is operated by an airtime vendor that sets up shop below the LED street light and manages the phone charging service.  Other examples include Vodacom and Mobisol in Tanzania and Safaricom and M-KOPA in Kenya.

Forming the backbone of this transition are pay-as-you-go business models and mobile money, which I’ll explore in my next blog.

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