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Empowering Microgrid Success: Schneider Electric's Innovative Approach and Regulatory Framework for Energy Accessibility


Empowering Microgrid Success: Schneider Electric's Innovative Approach and Regulatory Framework for Energy Accessibility
The latest report from the International Energy Agency (IEA) suggests that approximately 80% of the global population lacking access to energy resides in Africa, affecting around 600 million people, particularly in the Sub-Saharan region. Nevertheless, preliminary data indicates a potential plateau in the number of people without energy access in Africa in 2023, following a three-year increase. It is essential to maintain consistent and concerted efforts to enhance energy accessibility in the years ahead.
As part of our enduring commitment to improving energy accessibility, Schneider Electric initiated the Access to Energy (A2E) program in 2009. This program aims to provide support, training, and technical expertise to various stakeholders worldwide, addressing issues related to the lack of energy accessibility. Through the A2E program, Schneider Electric funded research led by PhD scholars Emilie Etienne and Théo Chamarande. The team conducted extensive visits to rural sites in African countries to explore the role of solar microgrids in enhancing energy accessibility, identifying common obstacles in the process, and proposing solutions.
Understanding Microgrids
Microgrids are independent power systems capable of operating autonomously from the main power grid. Typically relying on renewable energy sources such as solar, wind, or hydroelectricity, these microgrids can be locally deployed to provide clean and reliable power to communities. In many cases, the cost per kilowatt-hour of electricity generated by a microgrid is lower than that of conventional sources, such as fossil fuel-based devices, commonly used in rural areas.
Advantages of Solar Microgrids in Addressing Africa's Energy Crisis
Africa, often referred to as the 'sun continent,' experiences more total hours of bright sunshine than any other continent. This presents a significant opportunity to harness solar power as a solution to its energy crisis. Solar microgrids, being both cost-effective and environmentally friendly, outperform diesel generators and are well-suited for diverse geographical conditions. However, like any solution, microgrids face specific challenges. Here are three key obstacles that commonly jeopardize microgrids installed in rural Africa, along with proposed solutions.

Challenges and Potential Solutions for Rural Microgrids
Challenge #1 – Cost-effective Monitoring of Remote Areas
The operation of microgrids can become prohibitively expensive, particularly when monitoring installations in remote regions. Rural microgrids often encounter geographical obstacles, such as inaccessibility during rainy seasons, distance from urban centers, or being situated on islands. These factors make on-site visits for infrastructure monitoring challenging and costly. However, recent advancements in microgrid technology have introduced digital tools that facilitate remote monitoring, offering timely and detailed information. These tools are essential for gaining a better understanding of demand evolution and analyzing it. They also help mitigate the risk of data loss, which is higher when manually recording extensive data over the years.
Advanced digital software with Internet of Things (IoT) capabilities enhances site visibility and contributes value to the remote monitoring process, incorporating features such as real-time monitoring, operational efficiency analysis, data transmission to the cloud for global monitoring, and assessment of impact and performance parameters to inform better decision-making.
Challenge #2 – High Turnover Among Local Managers
The individuals on the ground play a crucial role in the success of a microgrid ecosystem, handling technical tasks, payment collection, customer-operator communication, fraud detection, conflict management, and maintenance alerts. However, a significant challenge is the high turnover rate among these managers, often driven by the uncertainty of microgrid operations, leading them to pursue more stable income opportunities in urban areas.
Addressing this issue involves closer involvement of these managers in operations, providing vocational training, and ensuring a stable income. Service providers should collaborate closely with them, empower them through training initiatives, and establish mechanisms to guarantee a reliable income.
Challenge #3 – Fluctuating Incomes and Electricity Needs of Rural Customers
The rural population experiences income fluctuations and varying expenses throughout the year, stemming from daily jobs, small-scale agriculture, occasional remittances, and other sources. Consequently, their ability to pay for electricity services varies significantly. Similarly, electricity needs fluctuate based on community events, market days, peak periods, or decreased demand due to harvests or weather conditions.
In contrast, certain microgrids may impose a fixed monthly payment, irrespective of energy needs and income, making it inaccessible for many. To address this, adopting a Pay-as-you-Go or prepaid service model proves beneficial.
The Pay-as-you-Go model allows customers to pay for electricity based on their needs and income, breaking down the total cost into manageable monthly or weekly payments, thus reducing the upfront cost of the solar home system. This flexibility provides a practical solution for rural customers. Alternatively, a prepaid model allows customers to pay a small amount to the service provider for a set amount of consumption, either on a daily or monthly basis, enabling people in rural areas to choose convenient plans based on their usage without the burden of a fixed cost.

The Crucial Role of a Strong Regulatory Framework in Microgrid Success
Many of the challenges faced by microgrids, as mentioned earlier, often arise from a lack of trust among various stakeholders. Establishing a robust regulatory framework by local authorities is essential for the successful operation of a network of microgrids in complex scenarios. Such a framework contributes to building trust among investors, developers, and customers.
A national integrated energy plan, spearheaded by local authorities and collaboratively designed with key stakeholders, serves as a crucial step in instilling accountability. This, in turn, fosters the development of a successful ecosystem of operational microgrids.
Looking Ahead
As part of Schneider Electric's commitment to connecting 50 million people to clean and reliable energy sources by 2025 through its A2E program, the company is actively addressing these challenges by:
  • Developing high-quality and affordable products and services.
  • Training electricians and entrepreneurs in rural areas.
  • Leveraging Schneider Electric's expertise in the digital and sustainability space.
  • Providing financial support to startups in the field of access to energy.
  • Actively contributing to the A2E international community, sharing experiences with all stakeholders.