Here’s a bright idea for flat-packing. A German start-up has figured out how to cram an entire solar power plant into a shipping container. It has sent its first kits to off-grid villages in Africa, where they provide a new source of clean, affordable electricity after just two hours of assembly.
More than 620 million people in sub-Saharan Africa have no access to electricity, a situation that can keep people in poverty. And population growth means this number is rising. Those with access tend to rely on inefficient diesel generators, chugging along with crippling financial and environmental costs.
Despite that, diesel is standard for off-grid energy. “If there’s no diesel, there’s no electricity”, says Rolf Kersten of the start-up, Africa GreenTec in Hainburg, Germany, which shipped its first solar generator to Mali in December last year.
Kersten’s team is using crowdfunding to build its containerised power plants. Solar panels and batteries are packed up and folded into a standard shipping container. On arrival, the equipment unfurls around the container with minimal assembly, and starts generating electricity. “For remote places away from a grid, these kinds of solution are very promising,” says Mat Evans at the University of York, UK.
Air pollution is a pervasive, silent killer in Africa, says Evans. Diesel generators pump out smoke particles, fostering a host of respiratory and cardiac diseases. Generator emissions also contribute to acid rain, which impacts crop yields and biodiversity, as well as CO2 that contributes to global warming. Solar power has none of these problems.
Lighting up Mourdiah
GreenTec sent its first container to Mourdiah, a village in south-west Mali a few hours’ drive from the capital Bamako, last September. Before then, only a few villagers had access to patchy electricity. Now, 120 houses are connected to a local grid.
To power Mourdiah’s nightlife, the container stores electricity in batteries, as well as producing it from solar panels. Enough energy is stored to light up the village for several hours each evening. “Most life starts at night there”, says Kersten. Education, for instance, takes place in the cooler evenings.
Studies of rural electrification have not always painted a rosy picture. In 1994, the World Bank found that the high costs of providing electricity to rural areas often meant the people it was intended to help could not afford it. Energy from GreenTec’s containers is cheaper than that produced by the diesel generators it replaced, though.
“This technology is generally sound and can be great for supporting communities off the grid,” says Mark Borchers, director of Sustainable Energy Africa. “The social aspects are often the trickiest. Who pays? How much? Who’s in charge? Who gets the power?”
The next version of GreenTec’s generator is bigger, with more panels and double the battery capacity. It should store enough juice to last a village like Mourdiah through the night, powering everything from lighting to built-in water pumps. One container set to arrive in the village of Nafadji in Mali this December has a built-in water-purification system that uses solar power.
The containers will be useful anywhere with a lot of sunlight that isn’t connected to a national grid, and everywhere from hotels to hospitals, says Kersten. Across the African continent today, that’s hundreds of millions of people who could really use some power.