Going off-grid


More than 850 million people throughout the world still lack electricity, according to the International Energy Agency (IEA). But microgrids can play a critical role in expanding access. And while diesel-based microgrids are still the most common setup globally, solar-backed systems have become increasingly common in recent years.

“Off-grid deployments will take an increasingly larger bite out of present and future power demand on the grid, particularly where systems and incomes are large enough to support modular system upgrades,” WoodMac senior research analyst Benjamin Attia said in March.

These sentiments are echoed by other analysts. Navigant Research, for example, said in November that it expects “tremendous growth” in the global market for distributed storage over the next decade or so. It expects the segment to expand from 1.07 GW of new annual capacity additions now to yearly growth of 19.9 GW by 2028.

Huawei, with its Smart Li-672V-100AH Cycle Lithium Battery platform, is well-positioned to serve demand for micro-grid solar energy storage. The lithium iron phosphate battery (LFP) system – which measures in at a compact 2,000 x 600 x 850 mm – provides storage for continuous power supplies. LFP cells offer a longer lifecycle than other lithium batteries, which makes them ideal for remote applications.

Electricity access

Renewables-based, decentralized energy systems are poised to significantly affect business models for utilities as they displace diesel generation throughout the developing world. The sector is still in its early days, but the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) revealed in April that global off-grid solar installations hit 3.4 GW at the end of 2019.

The economics of distributed solar+storage now pose a threat to the use of diesel in commercial and industrial demand applications. In emerging economies, solar home systems and equipment like solar lanterns have played an important role in expanding electricity access in rural communities, but new approaches are needed.

That is where larger-scale, modular solutions come into play – and Huawei can fill that void. WoodMac says innovative solutions that utilize machine learning and artificial intelligence will also be critical. Huawei – given its track record with sensor technologies and artificial intelligence – sits at the PV industry forefront of such trends.

Challenges and opportunities

The challenges and opportunities for microgrid deployment in sub-Saharan Africa are particularly immense. In April, consultancy Infinergia said that it expects between 5,500 and 17,000 new solar PV minigrids to be installed across the continent by 2026. Much of this deployment will be likely driven by necessity – the IEA estimates that nearly 600 million people throughout the entire region still live without electricity.

For remote applications in Africa, Huawei’s storage solutions are ideal because “the UPS features a monitoring bus redundancy design with no single points of failure.” O&M is particularly difficult for remote microgrid installations, but Huawei’s three-layer bare metal server system ensures battery reliability.

Infinergia has tracked more than 1,000 installed PV minigrids across the region, with most of them installed in Nigeria and Senegal, as well as Cameroon, where Huawei has already deployed its Smart Li-672V-100AH systems in a number of microgrid projects.

Huawei’s presence in Cameroon’s microgrid market dates back to 2013, when it started working with the government to deploy its PowerCube5000 micro-grid solution. By 2017, the company had installed a number of solar-backed micro-grid systems in the country, with systems ranging from 30 kW to 300 kW in size, featuring advanced maximum power point tracker (MPPT) technology, high-efficiency inverters, and advanced charging-discharging management.

Technological reliability is critical in the hot environments of sub-Saharan Africa, as such weather conditions can quickly degrade the life expectancies of batteries. Infinergia notes that only a fraction of minigrids installed in Senegal between the mid-1990s and the early part of the past decade are still operational, for example. But Huawei’s technology is an ideal match for such projects, as its systems feature a natural cooling design suited to the region’s climate, as well as cabinet-level extinguishing to prevent fires.

Future deployment across the region is promising, partly due to policy support. In recent years, a number of sub-Saharan African countries have started to launch public tenders for minigrid projects. This has been backed by supporting policies, as well as new national targets for rural electrification. This has in turn accelerated deployment, with 997 MW of off-grid PV capacity in place across the continent by the end of 2019, according to IRENA.

Asia accelerates

However, Asia is still the global hot spot for off-grid PV, with roughly 1.91 GW deployed by the end of 2019, according to IRENA. India, China, and Bangladesh host the lion’s share of operational capacity.

Huawei has been at the forefront of regional deployment, as its Smart Li-672V-100AH Cycle Lithium Battery is especially well-suited for emerging off-grid markets in countries such as Myanmar. The Huawei Smart Li-672V-100AH Cycle Lithium Battery’s modular design keeps Capex low, and has a 10-year lifespan, with 4,500 cycles – roughly 2.5 times that of a lead-acid battery.

In Myanmar, which has one of the lowest electrification rates in Asia, solar-backed minigrids are the quickest way to offer energy access. As one village leader told Huawei, its systems have allowed his rural community to finally obtain information from the outside world in real time, as they now finally have continuous power supply.

But challenges remain and the Covid-19 pandemic is the most obvious new concern. In March, Julian Jansen, head of energy storage research at business analyst firm IHS Markit, said in a research note that the impact of the global health crisis on supply chains poses a threat to the energy storage and solar industries.

Beyond such immediate concerns, microgrid developers need to consider a range of other issues. Many investors remain skeptical about microgrids due to concerns about scalability, for example. But as WoodMac notes, electricity markets beyond the edge of the grid will become a key part of the energy transition in the years to come – particularly in emerging markets.

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