IEEE Power & Energy Magazine - July/August 2014 - 71

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Ingredients for
Sustainable Off-Grid
Energy Development

an additional 10,000 households are connected to the grid each year, but over the
same time a growing population adds 90,000 new households. even if the requi-
site electrical infrastructure is present, up-front connection fees can be equivalent
to several months' income, and energy costs can be as steep as uS$0.50/kWh.
obtaining a grid connection is not the only hurdle. in more than half of african
countries there are generation resource adequacy deficiencies and chronic reliabil-
ity issues that lead to disruptive scheduled or impromptu blackouts.
Small-scale, off-grid systems, which typically offer between 0.1 and 100 kW
of peak capacity, require less up-front capital, have shorter implementation
time frames, and can be strategically located. medical clinics, schools, and
community centers may have solar photovoltaic (PV) panels, petrol generators,
microhydro, wind turbines, and associated components installed by generous orga-
nizations (see figures 1 and 2). but whereas many organizations expend a great
deal of effort on fundraising, technical design work, and the implementation of
a system, only a few thoughtfully plan for a project's long-term viability. for one
reason or another, one or more aspects of sustainability are overlooked, resulting
in the chronic underperformance, underutilization, or even outright failure of
the system. the consequences of failure are steep because so much is at stake.
based on their experience in small-scale, off-grid energy development proj-
ects, the authors have concluded that a "sustainability first'' mindset is needed at
the inception of any project. this article relates firsthand experiences that have
inspired this mindset. the intention is to leave the reader with an appreciation
for a holistic design approach that takes into consideration the technical, envi-
ronmental, economic, social, and organizational aspects of sustainability that
must be weighed and planned for.

Sustainability in Off-Grid Development
What does it mean for a small-scale off-grid energy development project to be sustainable? here is one answer:
Sustainability is the perceived potential for a system or project to endure, build a self-perpetuating
capacity within a community, and ultimately reach the end of its predefined life span or evolve into another
beneficial form.
framing sustainability in this manner is useful and indeed practical because it is forward-looking. Sustain-
ability can be judged ex post, rather than ex ante. importantly, it also allows an assessment of sustainability to
occur at any time-and hopefully many times-within the project's life span. it acknowledges that the sustain-
ability of a system may vary over time, potentially in response to changes in exogenous conditions.
this definition recognizes the importance of the local community in sustainability. Development projects
introduce a short impulse of physical and human capital into the local community. the impulse will quickly
decay unless the community directly acts to prolong, perpetuate, or even grow from it.
finally, the definition offers an exit clause. technologies, processes, and systems are never permanent.
Some are intentionally designed to bridge a gap until a future time when exogenous conditions are expected to
change-for example, installing an off-grid system meant to last until a known date of grid expansion. others
become obsolete naturally: the telegraph's being replaced by the telephone, for example.
july/august 2014

ieee power & energy magazine

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Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of IEEE Power & Energy Magazine - July/August 2014

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IEEE Power & Energy Magazine - July/August 2014 - Cover3
IEEE Power & Energy Magazine - July/August 2014 - Cover4
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