Mini grid expansion to drive battery energy storage in Africa

Up to 200,000 battery-backed mini grid systems could be installed in Africa by 2040 as the region struggles to connect nearly 140 million people to electricity, a summit in Nairobi discussed on March 21-22. By far the most dominant battery chemistry is lead.

Representatives from governments, utility companies and private sector power developers told the fourth annual Africa Mini Grids Summit in the Kenyan capital that expansion would be supported mainly by imported batteries, dominated by lead batteries because of their cheaper cost.

“Lead acid is still the dominant choice for the African market although different versions are in use depending on the consumer’s priorities,” said Laurent Grimaud, managing partner at France-based Ergos Energy Partners, a consultancy.

Ergos is working with a telecommunications firm in East Africa to install infrastructure in off-grid areas with lead acid batteries as the energy storage option.

“Gel batteries are a better option for such areas because of their lower maintenance demand,” he said, adding that other lead battery options in the market currently included wet cell and absorbed glass mat.

“Battery energy storage is procured by various entities that are developing mini grids mainly from imports because of the inadequate manufacturing capacity in the region,” said Kamal Gupta, sales consultant with Schneider Electric (Kenya).

Schneider supplies a gel version of lead acid batteries with its VillaSmart system, a hybrid solar PV micro grid system that replaces diesel-powered systems in off-grid areas.

“With less than 15% of rural households in Sub-Saharan Africa (excluding South Africa) having access to electricity, strategies for creating commercially viable small power producers and mini grids in rural areas are critically needed,” said Maggie Tan, CEO of event organizer Magenta Global.

In West Africa, some 128,000 mini grids have been approved for construction by 2030 by countries that are members of the Economic Community of West African States at an estimated cost of $3.7 billion.

Some of the off-grid systems include PV systems, solar home systems, small wind turbines, solar residential systems and hybrids with renewable energy sources as the primary system and a generator back-up powered by diesel, gasoline or liquefied petroleum gas.

In Tanzania, lithium ion batteries power more than 60% of the mini grids owned by government. “Tanzania opted to use lithium ion batteries in all state-operated mini grid systems because of the lack of capacity to recycle lead acid batteries,” said Robert Wang’oe, head of commercial business at JUMEME Rural Power Supply, a private mini-grid operator in Tanzania.