Highlights from the Global Off-Grid Solar Forum & Expo
Co-produced by Efficiency for Access and CLASP; written by Corinne Schneider, Jenny Corry Smith, and the CLASP team.
So much has happened since the re-launch of the Efficiency for Access Coalition in Hong Kong two years ago vis-à-vis appliances and productive use investments, R&D, and aligned programming. Sessions at this year’s Off-grid Solar Forum & Expo didn’t fail to take note. Check out our top 9 take-aways from this year’s OGSF in Nairobi.
"The off-grid solar sector needs to move beyond providing energy access to lifting people out of energy poverty--and this will require providing access to appliances like TVs, radios, and refrigerators."
-Mansoor Hamayun, CEO of BBOXX
1. Productive use and appliances have arrived – but are they ready to take off?
Appliances are now a core part of the business for most GOGLA members—65% of members sell appliances. However, affordability for consumers and profitability for companies remain central challenges, particularly for productive use, and this was brought up in several forum sessions. This is also supported in several recent Efficiency for Access reports which found that less than 13% of small hold farmers who have access to water can afford a solar water pump and less than 2% of all off and weak-grid households can afford a refrigerator.
Affordability is a huge challenge, but it’s not the only one. There’s still a huge gap between actual sales reported to GOGLA and market potential, per recent PULSE and SOGAM reports. During the unlocking higher tiers of access session, we asked the audience to vote on the top barriers to achieving market scale for appliances and productive use. End-user financing dominated, capturing 62% of the vote. This was followed by government support (18%), consumer awareness (9%), funding and investment for innovators (8%), and technology improvements (3%).
We also can’t forget about the “productive” part of productive use. If consumers can generate income and see a strong return on investment, then they will make the economics work. Elliot Avila from A2EI made the point that in Kampala there are over 100,000 motorcycles on the road, and these can be much more expensive than a solar powered productive use asset.
CLASP under Efficiency for Access is working with the Energy Saving Trust, 60 Decibels, and other partners to understand the income generation potential and other transformative impacts from appliances and productive use technologies, through a combination of consumer feedback and field trials. For more on that, check out A2EI’s excellent new report, Evaluation of Solar Powered Agricultural Technologies, which assesses emerging productive use tech along a spectrum of desirability, feasibility, and viability. (EforA is looking for partners to implement field trials in East and West Africa – see the expression of interest open now!)
2. No one is an island – making the agri-energy connect
As usual, Power for All is prescient in its assessment of emerging sectoral issues, as noted their 2019 article citing siloed energy and agricultural stakeholders as major barriers to overcome for off-grid solar in agricultural contexts.
Nearly a year later, many OGSF panelists – including Lucie Pluschke from GIZ, Lindsay Umalla of World Bank, Jeff Prins from IKEA Foundation, and several from CLASP – indicated that if we want to maximize impacts from productive uses of solar, we need to connect with services the agricultural sector provides (e.g. seeds, training) and take an ecosystem approach to help the technology work with the other tools and services.
SunCulture is now selling appliances (TVs and lights) and experimenting with electric pressure cookers. This helps even out revenues when ag tech sales and usage are seasonal, while delivering other high-value energy service (TVs when it’s raining) when crop work isn’t possible.
With sector leader Lighting Global looking at PULSE (Productive Use Leveraging Solar Energy), and the World Bank bringing their agri and energy programs into greater alignment, will others follow suit? CLASP votes for a broad and coordinated sectoral effort.
Widening the lens even further could create innovation disruption, i.e. taking a technology solution from one sector and applying it to another (e.g. agri-cooling applied to cooling in educational settings).
3. The increasingly fluid grid
From SHS to mini-grid to weak-grid. . . how do we encourage super-efficient appliances to serve customers along the spectrum? The AC/DC divide is real, both in terms of higher energy consumption and interoperability issues.
The predominant model in the sector is a “closed ecosystem” – a brand-specific plug combines with a proprietary digital protocol. CLASP’s Makena Ireri participated in a session on ‘Open Solar,’ a new concept describing improved compatibility within the sector, as well as with mini-grids and weak-grid mains. Such an approach could give consumers greater flexibility and offer companies cost reductions and new business opportunities. Whereas “closed” solar reduces default risk for PAYGo companies and could ensure higher quality for consumers. Audience members voted that open solar was in the best interests of the consumer and appliance manufacturers. The vote was close—but the audience voted that closed systems were in the best interest of PAYGo companies.
Any transition on interoperability would require industry and other stakeholders to come together to agree upon a phased approach towards standardization and focus areas (e.g. connecters, PAYGo, power systems). But that doesn’t address the problem of highly consumptive appliances intended for main grid connection that could be paired with solar, including mini-grids. While mini-grids continue to troubleshoot their business models, there’s a risk of a lock-in of inefficient appliances that may be unaffordable for consumers in the long-term (despite low up-front costs) and stretch mini-grid capacity.
See Efficiency for Access’s Interoperability Roadmap.
4. Leaving no one behind part 1 – will subsidies or consumer financing crack the affordability nut?
Every major piece of research over the past year cites affordability as the primary barrier to uptake of higher powered systems and life-changing productive use tech. Some say the best way to address affordability is through subsidies. Others are dubious and want to know who and what to direct them to precisely. Some say governments are more likely to support demand-side subsidies because they don’t create competition between SHS and main grid connection. Results-based financing can be an effective mechanism, but what are the other financial and market stimulation approaches? The conversations were as circuitous as this paragraph.
What we know to be true: Some households will be left behind without subsidies, even if scale and technical improvements continue to bring down costs.
5. Leaving no one behind part 2 – an enabling policy environment
While more than one panelist accused donors and investors of becoming transfixed by ‘shiny objects,’ i.e. new technologies (we won’t name names), many companies, aid agencies and others brought keen awareness of issues in the operating environment.
Solar lanterns, which continue serving ‘the bottom rung’ of the energy ladder, still compete with cheap knock-offs in every market. (Meanwhile, there are still hundreds of millions who can't even afford pico-lighting.)
“The entry of low quality products is the biggest challenge we are grappling with,” said Dr Taylor, Deputy Minister of Energy, Sierra Leone at the future of the solar lantern market session.
The newly launched VeraSol, in partnership with the World Bank Group and Africa Clean Energy (ACE), are working together to help governments in Sub-Saharan Africa adopt and align quality standards for solar lighting products. Still, companies are calling for greater investment in market surveillance and policy enforcement.
“The role of the donor and investor community is to support policy and national enforcement for high quality off-grid solar products,” Charlotte Heffer of d.light
Meanwhile, USAID and the Global LEAP Awards gave awards for emerging practices in e-waste management, a growing concern for the sector as it celebrates its 10th year of producing stuff. Kenya already has an e-waste management policy in place, and Rwanda, through evolving policies and practices, may soon be leading the pack. Implementation and enforcement of those policies remain essential for a low-junk sectoral footprint.
6. We don’t believe in silver bullets, but how about electric cooking?
MECS research indicates that electric cooking can be the most efficient cooking solution in 2025 if the cost of battery and mini-grid tariffs are reduced. MECS, ESMAP and CLASP convened a side session presenting research on electric cooking. Early pilots are taking place on mini-grids, with urban grid-connected customers, and in a select number of SHS. Consumer feedback from mains connected homes and mini-grid users has been overwhelmingly positive, with convenience cited as the greatest benefit. A lack of quality DC electric pressure cookers is holding back growth in the SHS market segment, but efforts like the Global LEAP Awards for Electric Pressure Cookers hope to spur innovation and accelerate the development of more appropriate designs.
A panel moderated by Dymphna van der Lans, CEO of the Clean Cooking Alliance, signaled to all that the clean cooking community and off-grid solar sector are coming together as one to tackle one of the world’s most pressing issues. We’re here for it!
Notably, during his tour of the conference expo, Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta was particularly interested in this technology and requested to take one back with him to the statehouse.
7. The climate-energy access nexus
We noticed a surge of chatter about connecting the dots between climate change mitigation and clean energy access. But is there a story to be told? If so, it goes something like this:
The carbon footprint of Africa and South Asia has the potential to spike in the coming decades as hundreds of millions of households and businesses gain access to energy. Distributed renewable energy paired with highly efficient appliances has the potential to create a low carbon pathway for development and displace carbon intensive alternatives like diesel generators and other fossil fuels.
In the near-term, off-setting diesel generation and electrifying cooking have the highest potential to reduce GHG emissions. But over the long term, we need to create a sustainable pathway to increase access to cooling, both from an emissions reduction and climate adaptation perspective.
Off-grid appliances can also contribute to climate resilience by helping farmers adjust to unpredictable rainfall and longer droughts and climate adaptation in a warming world. Speaking of warm, has your development program thought about super-efficient fans as a complementary, affordable, low-carbon emitting alternative to ACs?
8. Consumer-centered design
As products become increasingly expensive and complex, how consumers engage with them is top of mind for everyone designing and selling. Product and program design can have unintended consequences for how consumers use products, and therefore how satisfied they are with new purchases. A new 60 Decibels report benchmarking different sectors within energy access indicates a high percentage of customers report challenges using their appliances -- 39%.
According to CLASP expert Elisa Lai, when Global LEAP Award-winning refrigerators were field tested in Uganda, 88% of products consumed more energy than in the lab, with potential repercussions for affordability.
The CLASP team was struck in the electric cooking session when audience member Agnes Kalyonge, the founder of Jikoni Magic, said that innovative product design can exacerbate existing gender inequities, i.e., as an appliance becomes more technical or expensive it can make it less likely that women will have control over its purchase and use. Anecdotal evidence indicates this is happening in other areas of the agricultural value chain, e.g. men supplanting women in milking and dairy chilling once the business model becomes profitable.
In context, consumer-centered approaches for appliances should center issues of energy performance & durability, design, affordability, and social impact. Watch this space!
9. A matter of quality
There’s no substitute for quality products to change people’s lives, and that is why we were thrilled to launch VeraSol, an evolved quality assurance program for the off-grid sector. Building upon the strong foundation of Lighting Global Quality Assurance, VeraSol will house data and information on performance and quality for a broad swath of products (it’s merging with Equip Data), as well as tackle policy and a range of enabling environment issues.
Check out this BBC interview with VeraSol partner Arne Jacobson of the Schatz Energy Research Center at Humboldt State University citing the potential of solar appliance technologies, enduring importance of quality, and new IEC standards for stand-alone energy kits. (Arne starts at 3:35.)
‘Many customers in off-grid markets are aware of the products available and understand the importance of quality. Messaging and marketing for last-mile channels will be important moving forward.’ -- Anjali Garg, Lighting Asia/India
We’re excited to keep working in time with the sector to selectively expand quality assurance services, including developing an external brand that is more usable and flexible for companies. Stay tuned!