How Microsoft turned on the street lights in a Congolese town

You might not immediately associate Microsoft with street lights in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). But it was that company’s investment in something new called Peace Renewable Energy Credits last November that made it possible to turn on streetlights for about one third of the people living in Goma’s Ndosho neighbourhood in March, sparking celebrations in the streets.

PRECs are a unique and pioneering way to finance renewable energy projects in parts of the world that are prone to conflict and vulnerable to climate change, and where electrification is low and there is limited access for financing such projects. In DRC and South Sudan, Energy Peace Partners issues such credits.

Energy Peace Partners, YouTube, November 2020

The credits are a specialized form of the Renewable Energy Certificates that now are a billion-dollar international market. Like any other type of carbon credits, IRECs allow companies that produce green energy to sell credits for the megawatt hours of power they generate, and are typically bought by companies that want to reduce their own carbon footprints. 

But this market has been out of reach to fragile, energy poor countries until now. EPP set out to identify emerging renewable energy projects in such countries and introduce them into global renewable energy markets through the P-RECs, and DRC was clearly one of those countries that needed such help.

‘Among the five most fragile, climate vulnerable and energy poor countries in the world,” DRC doesn’t have an interconnected national grid. While it represents more than half the population of Central Africa, DRC also has one of the lowest electrification rates, at just 15%. Hydropower generates most of DRC’s electricity but it satisfies less than one third of the 3GW in unmet and rapidly increasing demand, says EPP.

Nuru, EPP’s local partner, aims to provide electricity to 5 million people by 2024 through solar hybrid minigrids. While such mini grids are the ‘least-cost solution’ for electricity in countries such as DRC, they have been a largely underfunded segment of energy access markets, Nuru says. 

And within DRC, the Kivus – site of a complicated conflict over many years which some have termed the third world war and which has been worsened by lack of lighting in small villages – is one of the neediest areas. In many of Goma’s neighbourhoods, only about 3% of residents have access to electricity.

Nuru was originally created in Beni in 2015 as Kivu Green Energy with the goal of bringing solar to the Kivu region. In 2019, it changed its name to Nuru to reflect its aim to expand beyond the Kivus to provide reliable and affordable renewable energy to people all over DRC.

The following year, Nuru, which means ‘light’ in Swahili, officially inaugurated a 1.3 MW solar system in Goma, capital of North Kivu province. The installation has nearly 4,000 solar panels, each with a generation capacity of 335 Watts. Ecologically friendly electricity poles, made from bamboo, carry the cables that power its customers; smart meters measure and monitor customer consumption. One of the largest off-grid solar mini grids operating in Africa, it will eventually serve more than 750 households and small and medium sized businesses.

Preselling the P-RECs to Microsoft made it possible for Nuru to carry out the first of three phases of the solar-powered street light project in Ndosho. Community residents had identified streetlights as a priority for the area because high levels of crime had created an atmosphere of insecurity for residents and businesses.

When the streetlights were turned on at the end of March 2020, there were celebrations in the streets. About 28,000 people, about 35% of Ndosho’s population, are benefitting from this first phase of the project. The streetlights will be extended across Ndosho in two phases planned for this year and next through P-REC sales.

The streetlights have improved nighttime road safety and neighborhood security, allowing businesses to stay open later at night, and reduced reliance on diesel generators, which are both expensive and highly polluting, in an area that has never had grid infrastructure.

The first of its kind project involved many partners – Nuru, 3Degrees, Energy Peace Partners, and Microsoft – and all are proud of what has been accomplished.

“This bold, forward-thinking commitment is exactly what is required to unlock the human potential of complex, challenging contexts like eastern Congo,” Nuru CEO Jonathan Shaw says.

“We developed the P-REC in order to support new renewable energy projects in fragile, energy poor regions of the world,” said David Mozersky, the president of Energy Peace Partners. “With this inaugural P-REC purchase, Microsoft is demonstrating that corporate renewable energy procurement can be high impact by making a difference in communities like Ndosho, where increased access to sustainable and affordable power will be transformative.”

“This unique transaction unlocks a new energy attribute option that other organizations can now leverage to drive renewable projects in underserved communities around the globe,” says 3Degrees, which specializes in renewable energy, transportation decarbonization and climate solutions and facilitated the sale.

Microsoft noted that such investments mean that the impact does not just reduce carbon – it also contributes to climate equity. “With P-RECs, companies like Microsoft that are looking to procure renewable energy can invest in regions that are the most impacted by climate change and that are currently deprived of access to modern energy,” said Vanessa Miler, Microsoft’s director of energy innovation and impact.

Nuru and Energy Peace Partners have been long-listed for consideration in this year’s Ashden Award for Humanitarian Energy.