IEEE Power & Energy Magazine - July/August 2014 - 77

Small-scale, off-grid systems can provide access to modest
yet important levels of electrical energy to millions of otherwise
energy-impoverished people around the world.

reporting are all critical to the success of such a wide-scale
program (see figure 6).
Providing the proper franchise model for a microutility
operation, where all the benefits of larger corporate over-
sight can come into play to assure the maintenance of a
set of operational standards and accountability while also
affording the local operator remuneration that bears a direct
relationship to the quality of its operation, has proven to be
one business model with significant promise in terms of both
sustainability and scalability.

Crossover of Sustainability Ingredients
teasing apart the various factors that contribute to the
sustainability successes and failures of off-grid projects
reveals a web of interaction among ingredients that makes
the analysis less than straightforward. a weakness in
one area can snowball and affect other areas over time.
below, one classic (if stylized) scenario is constructed to
highlight the challenge of factor interaction. the sustain-
ability ingredient related to the action contributing to the
failure of the project is provided in parentheses.
a rural, off-grid PV project is set up by an nGo bene-
factor at a school to provide basic lighting for pupils study-
ing at night. to support it, the school staff charges a fee
to recharge mobile phones in the surrounding community.
mobile phone charging grows from several per day to
ten-the design limit-and then to 20 and sometimes more
(technical and organizational). the lights begin to switch
off nightly after only an hour of study as it becomes typi-
cal for the low-voltage disconnect on the charge control-
ler to protect the battery. the operator attaches a spliced
power strip directly to the battery terminal because this
allows more phones to be charged despite the lights' going
out (organizational).
meanwhile, the station battery never gets an oppor-
tunity to become fully charged and over time is dam-
aged to the point where it cannot hold a charge at all.
Revenues dry up from mobile phone charging as cus-
tomers get their phones back with incomplete charges
(economic), and the community, learning that its chil-
dren can no longer study at night, begins to suspect the
operator is siphoning off a personal profit at the expense
of the pupils (social).
the nGo arrives later to find a failed system. any one
of the sustainability factors can be pointed to as the cause
of the breakdown. During sustainability assessments, it
july/august 2014

is difficult to disentangle cause from effect, as the events
unfold over time and can be interpreted in different ways.
in truth, only a holistic view of the situation and its evolu-
tion will truly capture the problems, and any solution will
depend on the progression of events.

Creating an Enabling Environment
for Off-Grid Sustainability
it is evident that the degrees of success in electrification of
rural communities vary from country to country. a criti-
cal assessment of successful and less successful programs
indicates that a sound and robust institutional framework
underpinning the electrification effort is critical in creating
an environment that maximizes the prospects for the sus-
tainability of off-grid systems. Drawing on experience from
several developing countries in asia and africa, an attempt
has been made to synthesize the key institutional elements
that encourage sustainability.
off-grid systems can be local monopolies. those that
serve substantial numbers of customers must be regulated
with regard to the price and delivery of services. this
requires a strong and well-resourced regulatory regime that
is both robust and transparent.
the existence of a national electrification management
and policy implementation agent enables sustainable devel-
opment. it is helpful to provide a one-stop shop under, for
example, a ministry of rural development, where all aspects
of rural electrification can be dealt with and where a clear
and transparent approach for nongovernmental electric ser-
vice providers to set up and operate their business at various
size classes can be established.
financing is perhaps the single most important aspect
of such projects, as without it no project can take place.
incentives for financing rural projects by, for example,
exempting key components from import duties and value
added taxes (Vats) can stimulate investment. the min-
istry of finance or the analogous government arm has
a key role to play here. in the near term, many proj-
ects will require subsidies to be attractive to the private
sector. it is important that once the subsidies are with-
drawn a pathway to sustainability be clearly articulated
and monitored through regulatory oversight or other suit-
able mechanisms.
another key area that is often ignored in initial project
planning is the safe disposal and recycling of certain poten-
tially toxic components of off-grid systems. it is important
ieee power & energy magazine

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