Solar Microgrids in South Africa Electrify, Boost Economic Development

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Accenture Development Partnerships has teamed up with the University of Notre Dame Initiative for Global Development (NDIGD) and The Rural Development Company to develop solar microgrids in South Africa that aim to provide rural electrification and economic development.

Accenture is trying to create a sustainable economic model that can be replicated, said Roger Ford, managing director, Accenture Development Partnerships.

“We are a group that looks to put social impact first and foremost ahead of global expansion and profit, with a goal of creating economic programs around the world,” he said.

Accenture Development Partnerships first launched a pilot project testing solar microgrids in Uganda two years ago. In the latest project, the South Africa microgrids, located in the northern KwaZulu-Natal district of uMkhanyakude, will provide power for irrigation equipment and power a pack house where local farmers process and package harvested crops.

The solar microgrids are 30 kW  and 50 kW in size, and Accenture has plans for an additional 1-MW microgrid in the South Africa location.

“They are all solar microgrids, although the team is looking at biogasification and other technology,” said Ford. To date, all of the microgrids have been solar with some diesel backup, he said.

The three microgrids are in different locations. Power from the 5o-kW microgrid directly provides power for irrigation with no backup, for example.

The project includes a classroom–powered by a 50-kW array–in which local people are trained in farming-related and other jobs. For example, they learn about crop pricing, how to act as microgrid field technicians, and how to repair solar arrays, said Ford.

“The training is job skills building and farming,” he said. “We’re training people in skills needed to launch small businesses such as Internet cafes. They are also being trained in barbershop and sewing businesses.”

Mobile Microgrid Classrooms

For the classrooms, Accenture is utilizing mobile shipping containers with microgrids on top for portability, he said. The shipping containers have sliding glass doors, and might include solar panels on the top.  “We have modified them into classroom units that we can drop in anywhere,” said Ford.”It’s almost a mobile power collection trailer that we can move around and secure in the evening to charge up batteries and the classroom for the day.”

For the larger microgrid, the developers buried the cable underground. “The battery box and solar collection are above ground,” Ford explained. “The shipping container is kind of sitting there on a concrete foundation and from there rows of panels out in the field run via cable to the battery box.”

Most of the microgrids have security fences around them, he noted.

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“The nice thing is we haven’t been wedded to one technology or fixed mounts or roof mounts or mobile mounts. We’re testing all these to find what’s working best and what’s most secure from a security standpoint.” Accenture uses data analytics to remotely monitor the output of the microgrids and monitor the health of the microgrids.

One of the keys–and main challenges–to launching the South Africa and other projects is finding a suitable anchor tenant that uses 50 to 8o percent of the power, said Ford. That could be a school, clinic or farming operation.

“Once we do that, we can use the excess power to subsidize additional vocational training and create economic development in the community,” he said.

Accenture’s goal is to expand and replicate the initial projects, said Ford. “We are looking to bring in the right investors and independent power producers to manage our existing microgrids,” he said. “We want the projects to be locally managed and overseen with the idea that over time we can turn the approach over to someone who wants to scale and replicate. We get it going and if it is successful, after a year or so, we want to turn it over to independent power producers.”

Accenture Development Partnerships works with leading NGOs and organizations to provide social impact, economic development education and access to health care and energy, Ford said. The organization helped launch UN’s Sustainable Energy for All initiative in 2011.

Foregoing profit to bring solar microgrids to South Africa

“Our model is a combination of reduced operating costs, foregoing traditional commercial profit and in many cases our people who work on these programs take salary reductions. It’s a cost share leverage model; Accenture will contribute, our people will contribute and our clients contribute and together we provide services.”

Accenture helps large private foundations deliver programs and monitor and evaluate them.

“We bring together commercial clients in a new sustainable business model, leading development programs in innovative ways,” said Ford.

The solar microgrid project in South Africa is part of the Connectivity, Electricity and Education for Entrepreneurship (CE3) program, a partnership between Accenture and University of Notre Dame that aims to create a new approach to providing energy to rural areas.

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