Mini-grids and stand-alone PV systems to serve millions in Benin in quest for universal electricity access

Group of guys working on solar panel

Integrated electrification planning tool used to assess electrification pathways for Benin

14 Feb 2019: Off-grid electrification technologies such as mini-grids and stand-alone PV systems play a vital role in providing electricity to people of Benin, especially in rural areas.

This is the conclusion of a new report ‘Electrification Pathways for Benin’ [1] by KTH Royal Institute of Technology and SNV Netherlands Development Organisation, which examines 21 electrification pathways for Benin. Using the energy planning tool OnSSET (Open Source Spatial Electrification Tool) [2], the team utilised local data and involved key stakeholders from government, the private sector and academia in the process, to ensure that the outcomes were realistic and form a solid basis for the development of implementation plans.

Targeting universal access to electricity by 2030 (as agreed under Sustainable Development Goal 7) requires a combination of grid expansion and off-grid technologies. On this basis, experts from KTH and SNV collected up-to-date geo-spatial datasets and policy information to identify the most cost-effective electrification solutions for each town and settlement in Benin. The OnSSET tool allowed for a flexible approach, taking account of not only the technological aspects but also different levels of electricity demand (including productive uses) and variable costs.

The resulting model calculations show that, in the least-cost scenario, to achieve affordable, universal electricity access in Benin, 10-50% of the newly connected population will get power from decentralised, off-grid technologies, mainly based on solar PV. The choice between grid extension and decentralised electrification depends largely on remoteness and how much electricity these households and businesses are expected to use. Stand-alone PV systems will play an important role in providing electricity mainly for rural households with low electricity demand.

In rural areas, the most important condition for the viability of mini-grids is the level of electricity demand. When demand is low, the cost of a mini-grid distribution network is too high. Mini-grids become more attractive when considering higher rural electricity access targets, and when taking into account additional demand for schools and health facilities. Other productive uses of electricity (not considered in the report) can further increase the cost-effective role of mini-grids. It is likely that these will be connected to the grid at some point, therefore mini-grids should be developed in such a way that they are compatible with the grid and allow interconnection.

Different policies and incentives are likely to affect the future technology mix. For example, grid tariff subsidies can make grid-connection more favourable for the customers in areas where another technology may be less costly to deploy. In addition, policies and regulations need to allow for private investments for mini-grid development in rural areas and provide clarity on interconnectivity and compensation in case the grid is extended.

Considering the substantial import dependency, high transmission losses, and financial challenges for Benin’s national utility SBEE, mini-grids and stand-alone technologies may provide a means to attract investments from private and international actors to accelerate electrification in the short to medium term, shifting some of the costs away from government. Also, scenarios with the high deployment of decentralised systems can lead to a cleaner electricity generation mix in Benin, with renewables replacing the centralised grid that is largely based on fossil-fuelled power plants.

The report from this initiative, ‘Electrification Pathways for Benin’, is an important contribution to the achievement of the energy goals in the Benin Government Action Program 2016-2021. However, this report is not an end in itself. Representatives in Benin from government, universities and the private sector have now been trained in using the OnSSET tool and are able to adapt the current planning assessment according to new needs identified or to changes in the context observed. At the level of KTH and SNV, the outcomes of the modelling will be continuously reviewed and will be updated with the further development of the OnSSET tool when, for example, the incorporation of productive uses has advanced.