Umeme Jamii: Re-Imagining Electricity Connection in Rural Tanzania
By Basil Malaki
Citizens have an active role to play in the realization of energy access for sustainable development. Especially in rural areas where the grid doesn’t reach all people. A previous study by the Energy Change Lab, Demanding Supply, concluded that four roles prevail; the citizen as a consumer, prosumer, entrepreneur or active citizen.
So people can be merely consumers getting power from a central or mini-grid, they can also produce energy with their solar systems for domestic and commercial use and act as prosumers, run businesses on energy as entrepreneurs, but also have opinions or organize their own energy supply as active citizens.
The Energy Change Lab is convinced that all these roles are imperative to deploy energy systems that provide energy for all. Transforming consumers of electricity to become prosumers, producing, using and selling electricity could be a new way to speed up energy access, lower costs and also support the shift to renewable energy (RE).
To find opportunities to enhance the prosumer role, the Energy Change Lab and DNV_GL conducted a study called ´Swarm & Smart´ to find opportunities for a prosumer approach where people connect their solar home systems (SHS) to create more powerful, affordable and efficient energy systems where excess energy can be commercialized. The findings strongly endorse delivery of a people-centred energy system that is accountable to users, creates employment opportunities, promotes off-grid and bottom-up service design for communities at the bottom of the economic pyramid as well as incentivises energy consumers to be more efficient.
The study also revealed that MicroEnergy International (MEI) has experience in creating the trading infrastructure which enables the sharing of renewable electricity through a local SHS “swarm” grid. Experience in Bangladesh shows that it can unlock up to 30% annual excess generation capacity per standalone household system (SHS), allowing more people to benefit from a clean, reliable source of electricity at a lower cost. The Lab has therefore reached out to MEI to jointly explore options for scaling and implementing the RE trading model in Tanzania.
Indeed, there are several ways to provide energy, ranging from connecting to the main grid, building mini-grids and usage of individual solar panels. Energy can also be provided by different actors: the state utility – Tanzania Electric Supply Company (TANESCO) in the case of Tanzania – for the main grid, individual companies with support from the Rural Energy Agency (REA) for mini-grids, and individuals that buy solar home systems (SHS) from private companies.
The Energy Change Lab, in partnership with MicroEnergy International and Ensol Tanzania has started to investigate how to accommodate communities that have not been reached by the grid. With an increasing number of solar home systems on the market in Tanzania, would it be possible to use the excess electricity after personal energy needs have been satisfied, to share and sell this excess, transforming it into an income generating activity? In other words: can people build with their SHS a local exchange system to power their needs, an Umeme Jamii?
Our initial assessment based on the DNV study, field visits and interviews, shows there is a strong case to prototype Umeme Jamii in Tanzania: we still see a high number of areas without electricity connection to the grid; high upfront cost for lighting and basic household electricity consumption; the need for electricity in areas where the grid is absent with sufficient density of houses where Umeme Jamii could be applied; and financing through village community banking. DNV also highlighted that SHS could become even more important as many modern equipment can run on low solar voltage such as laptops, phones, televisions, etcetera.
In scouting for a possible deployment location for our prototype, we explore a set of questions in several areas:
Are SHS present, what is the amount of excess energy of home power and demand for electricity in these villages? Existence of excess power is the main criteria for easy implementation of Umeme Jamii.
Can villagers afford the solar systems and also pay for the electricity supplied to them? Are there financiers that provide financial support to acquire appliances and enable communities to purchase equipment for productive use of energy (e.g. mills, dryers etc)?
Cultural and traditional norms are also fundamental to consider: the social culture of freely sharing community resources is evident, however, the acceptability of a new culture where people will be required to pay for shared electricity needs to be assessed.
Currently, there seems to be room for piloting Umeme Jamii in rural areas. In urban areas, regulations from the Electricity and Water Utilities Regulatory Authority (EWURA), give less space as it is prohibited to supply electricity in areas where the grid is present.
The Energy Change Lab, together with MicroEnergy International, Ensol and other partners will further investigate this and with positive outcome plan to prototype Umeme Jamii in two off-grid villages in rural Tanzania.