Thinking laterally when it comes to electricity

I have been thinking for some time now that we are in a time of paradigm change that is greatly affecting how we see our world. We are moving from the top down control model of the industrial revolution to a participatory grassroots model that is often much harder to see – because it is distributed from the bottom up and takes many forms.

In technological terms, many of these new ideas show up in global competitions. I just discovered the IEEE Empower a Billion Lives competition, a recurring competition that began in 2018, which seeks scalable solutions to energy poverty that are regionally relevant, holistic, and leverage 21st century technologies with exponentially declining prices. At its 2023 global final in Orlando Florida, 25 global finalist teams from around the world showcased their groundbreaking innovations. More than 200 teams entered the 2023 competion.

“There are 3 billion people in the world living in energy poverty, and over 1 billion people without any access to electricity,” says IEEE. “So far, only 1.8 million people have gained tier 2 energy access by using off-grid electric services.  To address energy poverty, more of the same may not be the answer. New strategies are needed to scale energy access solutions 1000x.”

IEEE – the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers – has more than 400,000 members worldwide and describes itself as the world’s largest technical professional organization dedicated to advancing technology for the benefit of humanity. It goes by IEEE because its membership has become diverse over the years, including computer scientists, software developers, information technology professionals, physicists, medical doctors, and many others in addition to IEEE’s electrical and electronics engineering core.

The global final, Baltimore, 2019

IEEE PELS launched the IEEE Empower a Billion Lives in 2018, as a recurring global competition for teams to develop and demonstrate solutions to energy access, and to articulate business models for scaling these solutions. That year, more than 450 teams from 70 countries participated in events that included five regional competitions (China, India, Africa, Europe, and US), field demonstrations (in Rwanda, Uganda, Malaysia, Nepal, India, Tanzania, China, Nigeria, Cambodia, Singapore, Madagascar, Kenya, and the Ivory Coast), ending with a global final in Baltimore in October 2019. The $100,000 grand prize was awarded to team SoULS from IIT Bombay for an innovative model of Energy Swaraj (energy self-sustainability) that married advanced industrial supply chain principles with a program to boost self-reliance for local women through training, jobs and entrepreneurship.

The 2023 grand prize winner, Nanoé, which is based in Madagascar, combines technological innovation and an innovative organizational approach, said IEEE.

This is how Nanoé describes its lateral electrification model:

“We believe it is possible to develop access to both electricity and employment by creating a new electrification model for Africa, progressive and modular, based on renewable energies, information and communication technologies and local entrepreneurship. We called this model Lateral electrification.

Such top-down infrastructure development programs based on massive public investment at the national level can only have been achieved in countries where public financial capacities and political stability have been durably met.

Such conditions are unfortunately still not met today in the countries where most of the non-electrified populations live.

If this electrification model is not or only marginally replicable in many African countries, it is however not obvious that it is desirable. Indeed, developed countries experience today the limits of hierarchical power infrastructures inherited from this particular development model. Indeed, their compatibility with the transition to a low carbon, decentralized and collaborative economy is questioned. 

For these two reasons, Nanoé promotes a new “lateral” approach of electrification performed by progressive interconnection of building blocks of decentralized, smart and locally managed networks. Our conviction is that lateral electrification of Africa is the biggest industrial, social and environmental challenge for the next two decades.”

What this looks like in practice is creating nano-grids that serve four to six households who use mobile prepayments to purchase daily access to an electrical service adapted to their needs, made possible by nano-entrepreneurs who are supported in their operations.

Beginning with a pilot project in 2017 in the Ambanja district in northwest Madagascar, where less than 5% of the population has access to electricity, more than 2000 households now have access to Nanoé electrical services.

Cover image: This picture comes from the Nanoe website, as does the picture of the team.