San Francisco company aims to boost solar access across Africa

San Francisco-based ZOLA Electric is partnering with Distributed Power Africa (DPA), the distributed energy subsidiary of the Johannesburg-based telecoms company, Econet Group, to expand energy access in Africa by developing distributed solar.

“For Econet to say ‘This is the future’ builds credibility for the [distributed solar] industry,” said Bill Lenihan, ZOLA Electric’s CEO.

Under the partnership, DPA will buy and distribute an initial $8 million worth of ZOLA’s Infinity system products.  An Infinity box  provides 2.4 kWh of battery storage and peak power of 1.8 kVa. The box can be deployed singularly as distributed solar for residential and commercial customers, or it can be used as part of a mini-grid network.

The partnership will involve selling ZOLA’s Infinity systems into nine sub-Saharan countries. Because DPA has strong relationships in Zimbabwe, Zambia, Namibia, Lesotho and South Africa, these countries will be the first markets targeted.

ZOLA Electric’s roots start in a trip that co-founder Xavier Helgesen took in 2007 to Malawi. The company currently serves 1 million users across two continents more than 10 countries.

“There has never been more demand for reliable energy in Africa, and because of the pandemic, the pain points of unreliable energy have never been this high,” Lenihan said. To advance energy access, particularly in remote places, the scalability and resiliency that is built into distributed energy generation assets is essential, he said.

The failure of any single or set of ZOLA Infinity boxes will not compromise the mini-grid’s operation. Additional boxes can be added anywhere in the network with minimal installation costs and without the need for investments in communications and control, he said.

Telecom model

When it comes to expanding energy access in Africa, the hope is that the sector will follow the telecom industry’s playbook. That meansfrica skipping the hub-and-spoke-type grid infrastructure phase and jumping right to a decentralized model.

For DPA, adding ZOLA’s technology to its product mix could help accelerate the uptake of its retail power business. Through its Ugesi Energy division, DPA already has a mini-grid business that is focused on bringing electricity to rural communities that previously lacked access.

In Tanzania, for example, less than 20% of the rural population has access to electricity, but 75% of the population have cell phones. Charging them often requires subscribers to rely on others for electricity.

“Energy has always been an essential service,” Lenihan said. The pandemic makes energy “just become that much more essential.”

Written by JEAN HAGGERTY From PV-Magazine USA