With Electricity Supply Corporation of Malawi (Escom) only reaching at least 13 percent of the country’s population, access to electricity remains a huge challenge for the majority of Malawians.
However, mini-grids are proving handy in ensuring more people have power in their houses, a target envisaged in Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7.
The goal identifies access to electricity as essential for people’s lives and livelihoods.
In fact, the United Nations (UN) states that access to affordable, reliable and sustainable energy is crucial to achieving other SDGs such as those that tackle poverty eradication, education, water supply and climate change.
So to fast-track the attainment of SDG 7, Malawi Energy Regulatory Authority (Mera) has undertaken a number of initiatives to complement efforts in that regard.
Mera is, among other initiatives, promoting mini-grids, which have proved to be reliable in providing electricity to rural populations not served by Escom.
“Since they are not connected to the main grid, mini-grids only generate electricity for local consumption. This allows developers to better track and understand a community’s energy needs so that electricity supply can match demand,” Mera spokesperson Fitina Khonje says.
For those in the country’s remotest locations, standalone solar power systems operating independently of the grid can meet needs such as mobile phone charging and lighting.
Energy experts say renewable mini-grids are cheaper and greener.
“Mini-grids also help users avoid the problem of power cuts from the main grid, thereby ensuring a less intermittent supply of electricity,” Khonje says.
In Group Village Head Bondo’s area in Mulanje, private mini-grid developer Mulanje Energy Generation Agency (Mega) is supplying electricity to 1,600 customers.
Mega Project Coordinator Arnold Kadziponye says plans are underway to expand the project to reach over 10,000 customers who have expressed interest in being connected to their grid.
“In Mulanje alone, we have over 10,000 potential customers. Our plan is to generate 6.5 megawatts [mw] in the next five years. We will sell four megawatts to the national grid,” Kadziponye says.
Over 900 kilometres away from Mulanje, Chipopoma Power, a community mini-grid firm in Traditional Authority Kachulu in Rumphi, has connected 75 households and one maize mill to its grid.
The mini-grid also powers small-scale businesses and a local bakery.
The community implemented the project with financial support from the government under the ‘Increasing Access to Clean and Affordable Decentralised Energy Services (Iacades)’ project.
Iacades is a project being implemented by the Department of Energy Affairs with funding from UN Development Programme (UNDP) and Green Energy Fund.
UNDP provided $350,000 to cover the upgrading of the power generation system and the procurement and installation of transmission and distribution materials, effectively curtailing a long wait for electricity connection among community members.
The UN agency, in partnership with Global Environment Facility, also provided support to Sitolo Solar Power Photovoltaics Mini-grid in Sitolo Village, Mchinji.
The works are being done in collaboration with Community Energy Malawi.
Recently, Mera took Chipopoma Power officials on a learning and knowledge-sharing visit to Mega and Sitolo to appreciate how their colleagues are running the projects.
Chairperson of Chipopoma Power, John Sailence, described the learning visit as an eye-opener.
“We have learnt so many lessons from this trip and we are determined to implement them for the betterment and improvement of our project,” Sailence, a standard two dropout, who initiated the project, says.
On the other hand, Khonje disclosed that Mera looks at the sudden development of these mini-grids as a relief as they provide an alternative source of energy Malawians can use to power their houses and business facilities.
She says the authority would support the projects to ensure that more people have access to reliable and cleaner energy.
Khonje stresses that as mini-grids flourish, it is the duty of the regulator to develop and enforce performance and safety standards for energy exploitation, production, transportation and distribution.
“While electricity is very important, it can also be very dangerous if not handled well,” she states.
Mera is mandated to regulate the energy sector and licence energy undertakings as defined in Section 9 of the Energy Regulation Act.
The authority is also mandated to facilitate access to energy supplies and promote the exploitation of renewable energy resources.