The E4D team has recently completed a feasibility study for a solar microgrid to provide reliable electricity to houses and businesses in a village in Dedza, Malawi. The study has been carried out for our in-country partner United Purpose with funding from Irish Aid, and has concluded that microgrids offer an affordable method of securing energy access with clear poverty reduction opportunities to the community it is serving.

solar microgrid

A Solar Microgrid (Photo credit Jennifer Burney / Stanford University )

Rural electrification efforts in Malawi are progressing at a variety of levels: the government is taking steps to extend and increase generation capacity of the national grid, private sector growth is being seen in pico solar product (PSP) and solar home system (SHS) markets, and NGO’s are piloting larger scale mini-grids powered by solar and hydro. The motivation for this project was to address a gap Malawi’s energy access sector, by designing a project to provide higher levels of electricity than can be offered by a PSP or SHS, but demanding lower capital costs than the larger mini-grid systems.  With recent cost reductions in solar PV components coupled with the presence of high solar resources in Malawi, the focus of this study was therefore to assess the viability of a solar microgrid in the region of 5 kW.

A solar microgrid offers a village level electricity supply, with a central generation site and wired connections powering domestic consumption for lights and phone charging and productive uses of energy such as refrigeration, barbershops and video shows. Microgrids offer value to communities in the supply of a reliable electrical connection to improve quality of life at a domestic level and offer an opportunity for jobs and income generation through local businesses, spurring economic development. Recently, a rise in the implementation of solar microgrids has been observed with companies such as Powergen, Meshpower and Steamaco pushing innovation in technology for metering and control as well as business models and tariff setting.

After selecting an appropriate site, UP staff carried out village level surveys to draw light on existing energy use and collect other social, economic and demographic data. From the data the Strathclyde team could design the electrical systems, carry out techno-economic modelling, and draw up detailed business plans with financial modelling.  Estimating electricity use in villages currently without a connection is inherently difficult, and to account for these difficulties we modelled different scenarios, each assuming a different load profile.

The microgrid system will have a central solar PV array, battery storage, inverter and auxiliary components providing wired AC electrical connection through a distribution grid.  A smart meter solution will allow for customers to purchase pre-paid per kWh tariffs via a local vendor.


Schematic of one of the proposed systems (Author Aran Eales)

The start up costs, or capital expenditure for the modelled microgrids came out at around $1,000 per microgrid customer. This is slightly higher than benchmark studies in other East African countries, due to the nascent state of the Malawi mini-grid industry resulting in undeveloped supply chains and higher component costs as a result. Assuming donor funds can pay for the initial capital, cost reflective tariffs were calculated to cover the operating costs, based on the predicted energy demand. These ranged between about $1-$2/kWh. This may sound expensive, but is comparable to other microgrid initiatives and offer savings on current energy use. As well as giving recommendations on next steps to install the system, the report outlines barriers to wider implementation of solar microgrids in Malawi, which include supply chain constraints, skills and capacity gaps, and an unfavourable regulatory environment.

tariff setting

Balancing Costs and Energy to calculate tariffs (adapted from Practical Action)

UP is intending to partner with UoS to use the results of the feasibility study to implement a pilot project in the identified village. Once the  system is installed, detailed monitoring and evaluation of the amount of electricity used and the impact it has on the community will help to inform future projects, with a wider goal of scaling up solar microgrid implementation across Malawi under UP’s social enterprise initiative, EnergyUP.

A two-page summary of the findings can be found here