Partners in Colorado and Rwanda Join Forces to Realize Rural Electrification

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Researchers at the University of Rwanda and Colorado State University’s (CSU) Energy Institute have joined forces to create microgrids that will provide energy access to rural, off-grid communities in Rwanda and across Sub-Saharan Africa.

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Rwanda’s government estimates that only 20 percent of the population has access to reliable, safe sources of electricity. That can drop as low as 5 percent in some rural areas, according to a CSU news report.

The Rwandan government has set a goal of nationwide electrification by 2024, part of a plan to raise living standards and improve economic opportunities for the nation’s 12 million people. Many live in remote areas far from paved roads or utility infrastructure.

Rwandans are turning to small-scale microgrids and distributed energy solutions that use renewable resources and hold out prospects of high levels of downstream, productive use as a result, CSU’s Energy Institute Executive Director Bryan Wilson said in an interview. 

Rwanda’s off-grid communities and businesses typically use diesel gensets to secure electricity. The generators, however, create emissions and noise, and at times their fuel supply becomes scarce.

As an alternative, CSU and its Rwandan partners provide solar photovoltaics (PV) and battery-based energy storage systems, a combination that they describe as more efficient and reliable, and increasingly cost-effective, especially when human and environmental health benefits are considered.

But designing, building and operating the microgrids in remote villages poses challenges. It’s not always easy to transport equipment and personnel to the sites — and that raises project costs.

Then there’s the challenge of helping ensure that villagers derive the greatest possible value from the electricity that’s produced. That’s CSU Energy Institute’s particular forte. CSU’s Smart Village Microgrid team draws on the expertise of scientists whose research spans a range of disciplines — sociology and economics, for example — as well as the hard sciences and engineering.

A cross-disciplinary approach to catalyzing energy access

CSU Energy Institute Senior Research Scientist Daniel Zimmerle began working on the energy-access initiatives after learning five years ago from CSU scientists in Rwanda about the desire among Rwandans to secure electricity.

CSU’s Catalyst for Innovative Partnerships (CIP) program helps fund the Rwanda Smart Village Microgrid Project. Through CIP, Zimmerle has collaborated with engineers, social scientists, industrial technology designers and others from CSU’s colleges of liberal arts, agricultural sciences, and health and human sciences.

Technology and knowledge transfer are key facets of the project.

The World Bank selected CSU as the University of Rwanda’s strategic partner in designing an African Center of Excellence sustainable energy and sustainable development program at the University of Rwanda.

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In this role, Energy Institute faculty and students worked with counterparts at the University of Rwanda to design the program’s curriculum and research programs. An Energy Institute team also helped design and build program laboratories and provided training to University of Rwanda faculty, staff and students.

Energy Institute spin-offs Xpower and MeshPower operate some 70 rural commmunity microgrids in Rwanda and one in Uganda, Willson told Microgrid Knowledge. CSU’s Powerhouse Campus is also home to Husk Power, which is working with a cross-disciplinary team of Energy Institute researchers to refine and scale-up its microgrid solutions, which make use of agricultural waste, solar PV and battery energy storage.

Looking ahead, CSU continues to participate in the African Center of Excellence program as it expands in 10 additional countries in southeast Africa where sustainable energy access is sorely lacking.

Banks & others helping Rwanda

Multilateral development banks and agencies also are playing a pivotal role in helping Rwanda and other nations across sub-Saharan Africa install renewable energy.

Rwanda’s Minister of Finance and World Bank’s Country Manager for Rwanda signed a $48.9 million, Scaling-Up Energy Renewable Program Financing Agreement in July 2017.

The agreement is designed to help the Rwandan government enhance energy access and realize its national electrification goal using off-grid energy and private-sector participation.

The project will help make 445,500 new, off-grid connections and provide an estimated 1.8 million people access to off-grid electricity, according to World Bank.

The agreement will also ensure that Rwandan savings banks, commercial banks and credit co-operatives gain experience regarding lending best practices associated with financing what amounts to an entirely new energy sector made up of project developers, independent power producers and consumers.

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