Total connects with ‘microgrid' start-up to improve energy access in East Africa

Powerhive is a start-up from California that designs and deploys electrical micro-networks in East Africa, based on an innovative pay-as-you-go cost structure. With an agile and efficient economic model, Powerhive has sparked the inter-est of Total, which aims to expand access to energy with its Better Energy initiative.

Around 1.5 billion people in the world have little or no access to electricity. This map published by the World Bank very clearly shows that the most underserved areas by far are situated in Sub-Saharan Africa and South-East Asia.

Of course, there are some electrification projects already in the works in these territories, run by local authorities. But they'll take decades. Meanwhile, each year, there are 10 million more Africans looking for access to energy. There is a strong likelihood that Africa will be able to 'skip over' the phase of large-scale electrical infrastructure projects and opt directly for a distributed energy system, produced and consumed locally, much in the same way that it passed directly to mobile telephony without developing landline infrastructure.

Could start-ups be a part of the solution?

Younger, more agile, faster, and more efficient — new businesses are proposing solutions to improve access to electric-ity for populations in need. Among them is SHS, Solar Home Systems, which builds small networks called Microgrids that produce and distribute electricity, very often using renewable resources like wind and solar.

• Read more on the same topic: Solar kiosks for villages without electricity

The California-based start-up Powerhive has been specializing in microgrid technology for five years now. How did they do it? The company drew on advances made in solar panels, batteries, electrical equipment and techniques linked to smart meters and mobile payments.

While they have not, strictly speaking, made technological innovations of their own, Powerhive did devise an effective combination of new technologies developed by others, adapting them to the particular conditions of their target markets.

First, solar energy has become less expensive and more competitive compared to other means of generating electricity. At the same time, satellite visualization tools like Google Maps have made it easier to pinpoint areas where the popula-tion is most concentrated and identify the optimal locations to equip. Finally, from a more technical perspective, the use of LED lighting systems allows for lower energy consumption — the batteries perform better and can be used with smart meters. Above all, the rate of mobile phone usage is very high. All of these ingredients were in place to suggest a solution in which the end-user pays in advance for a set quantity of electricity that's reliable, affordable, and environ-mentally-friendly. It's the principle of "pay-as-you-go."

Read more on the same topic: BBOX, a new player in the access to energy in Africa

Powerhive combined individually simple components in an innovative way, adding a strong field presence to the mix. They were able to convince local authorities to grant them development licenses authorizing them to generate, deliver, and sell electricity to local populations. Their solution has made Powerhive the number-one private company and the number-two provider of electricity in Kenya today.

A natural partnership with Total

When you have a network of 4 million gas stations in Africa; when you have a strong vision for the expansion of access to electricity; when your aim is to become one of the top three providers of renewable electricity within several years, you can't help but be seduced by Powerhive's offering. It is for these reasons that Total Energy Ventures invested in the California-based start-up at the end of 2015. "Powerhive was looking at Total with a great deal of interest," confides Emmanuel Courcier, senior Investment Man-ager at Total Energy Ventures. "Its founders saw us as the pre-eminent energy provider — present in Africa and carry-ing a true message of development in energy access. Powerhive wanted to have Total as a partner, and we've done it!"It's a partnership that could take multiple forms, like envisioning the use of gas stations as anchoring points for a mi-crogrid platform, or using the presence of an established provider to accelerate projects, and ambitions. "One Powerhive project — that's 100 villages, 20,000 homes and 100,000 people impacted. With 10 projects, we're talking about a million people," specifies Emmanuel Courcier. "Tomorrow, we can easily imagine that these decentral-ized and autonomous installations could be connected to a main network, giving it stability by alleviating some of its workload.An approach equally in line with the vision of Better Energy. Providing decentralized and renewable electricity will enable the replacement of kerosene and spirit lamps or diesel generators, all of which have the unfortunate pitfalls of being expensive, polluting, not readily available, and harmful to human health. Courcier is "proud to be a part of these projects. We are all convinced that they will be viable in the long term, that they will be successful, and that they'll bring a great deal to the populations concerned."Total Energy Ventures has invested in two start-ups whose economic models are similar: Off Grid Electric and Powerhive. "There are many needs in many countries and there will be room for everybody. Total will continue to in-vest," details Emmanuel Courcier. "Our role is to cultivate these start-ups. That takes us between five and 10 years. Usually, we will part ways at the end of this period, unless Total wishes to pursue a collaboration in one form or an-other, including the possibility of integration." As for Christopher Hornor, president of Powerhive, he welcomes the prospect of "working with people at Total who have both a social conscience about what they're doing and an understanding that the energy of tomorrow has to be cleaner. They're supporting us with a long-term vision and investment, and we are bringing them innovative solutions. It's a win-win solution."* source

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