One obstacle is the lack of proven commercial business models and adequate and appropriate forms of financing.
Another is that policy frameworks often are not accommodating.
And many developers and operators lack the requisite knowledge and experience.
The situation is ripe for change.
With the United Nations sustainable development agenda ambitiously targeting universal access to energy by 2030, policymakers are paying more attention to electrification, and development-finance institutions and partners are making more funding available.
Meanwhile, the cost of renewable energy is falling; energy efficiency is improving, both for generating equipment and for the machines to be powered; and innovative digital technologies are facilitating the management of electricity services.
A flexible solution like mini-grids is well suited to this context.
As it stands, mini-grids in Africa are mostly diesel or hydropower systems.
Yet mini-grids can – and increasingly do –take the form of solar PV and hybrid systems, with hybrid systems being particularly promising.
Diesel systems face the risk of fuel-supply disruptions or cost increases, while renewable-energy generation can vary according to weather and season.
Hybrid systems that combine diesel with solar or wind power mitigate these risks.
Mini-grids are flexible in other ways, too.
Mini-grids may or may not be connected to the national grid.
They can be operated privately, by utilities, on a community basis, or according to a public-private model.
And they can sell electricity to retail consumers, utilities, or both.
So how can African governments use the potential of mini-grids to help expand energy access?
As recent experience in the United States has shown, early adoption of technical innovations, particularly of digital management tools, could enable mini-grid business models to become more cost-efficient.
New technologies could even enable mini-grid providers to develop entirely new organizational models for electricity systems that are more effective and resilient than the conventional utility-based approach.
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