Africa’s electrical grid currently reaches millions of people—but it leaves out millions more. Many rural areas still need power, but extending the grid out to these customers typically costs far too much. Fortunately, Engineering and Public Policy (EPP) Professors Paulina Jaramillo and Nathan Williams and the new Mini-Grid Innovation Lab for Africa aim to sustainably deploy electrical mini-grids in rural Africa.

The Lab will iterate innovative solutions for the application of mini-grid technology by analyzing business models, prototyping efficient appliances, and refining solutions for its customers. Jaramillo and Williams will analyze the lab’s data to recommend viable financing and productive use for mini-grid tech. This work supports mini-grid developers and gathers evidence for the mini-grid’s need.

“Carnegie Mellon will act as advisors in the design of the interventions the lab is deploying to support the sustainable deployment of rural mini-grids in Africa,” says Jaramillo. “For example, over the last couple of months, we have helped to design a study for identifying the viability of financing appliances to spur productive uses for electricity by mini-grid customers, and we will be using the data they collect to evaluate the benefits of the intervention.”

Carnegie Mellon will act as advisors in the design of the interventions the lab is deploying to support the sustainable deployment of rural mini-grids in Africa.

Paulina Jaramillo, Professor, Engineering and Public Policy, Carnegie Mellon University

In practice, mini-grids could sustain service more reliably than main grids in rural areas. The Lab’s analysis has found that the voltages in mini-grids are doubly consistent to those in the main grid. Though tariffs run higher than on the main grid, the mini-grid possesses reliability that produces fewer average outages, which reduces interruptions to productivity and service.

To make mini-grid deployment feasible, the Lab is investigating the viability of offering customers appliances on credit. The Lab and developers believe this strategy should sustain mini-grid business models, with early reports stating: “two developers have sold out of planned stock, with more than 350 customers buying over 500 appliances.” Sensible returns on investments could improve developers’ confidence to create mini-grid business to serve rural communities.

If deployed and funded effectively, mini-grids could drastically improve electrical power distribution in rural Africa. CrossBoundary analyzed the number of people in Africa who could benefit from inexpensively and efficiently connecting to mini-grid power. With current technology, CrossBoundary estimated that investing $11 billion USD would connect 100 million people to mini-grids. The Lab strives to articulate this need for power to investors and governments.

The Mini-Grid Innovation Lab for Africa is sponsored primarily by CrossBoundary in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation and partners with local organizations.