Thursday, November 24, 2011

Long-term SUSTAINABILITY in rural electrification projects

Since long-term sustainability is the main thread of rural electrification programmes, and so of this blog as well, first thing needed is a clear and precise definition of its meaning.

In this context, long-term sustainability will be defined as "the reliable and cost-effective operation of a system over its design lifetime" (AFREA, Africa Renewable Energy Access Program)

Although this blog is mainly focus on  Renewable Energy based projects, "systems" may also means any other kind of  solution such as connection to the utility grid or diesel generators. Nonetheless, for facilities in remote areas where the grid is not accessible (either due to technical or political reasons) and diesel generators are not feasible because of high price of the fuel or logistics, renewables, and mainly PV systems, usually is the most practical approach and also the least-cost option.

But the sad reality is that many of these systems become inoperative after a few years, and sometimes even from the first one. I have been able to see it by myself in my trip to Mali last December. Traditionally, these failures have been attributed to technical reasons, let's say lack of maturity of the PV technology. And as a result, the perception that beneficiary communities have about PV off-grid systems is erroneous. When I have tried to introduce the benefits of PV systems in some sensitization meetings in East Africa, usually the attendees have complained about "solar" as they still perceive it as a "low-cost" (low quality) option...

Obviously, technical problems arise during the operation of an off-grid system (even if PV is the renewable energy technology with less requirements in this regard), but the real problem that hinder the sustainable long-term operation of these systems is the lack of organizational and operational arrangements for the post-project period that must be formulated during the project development phase. That is to say, find answers to these questions:

  • Who/whom will be the owners of the installation? The community? a local utility? the local  government?
  • Who is in charge of the O&M? a private company? the community itself? Have they been properly trained?
  • How to fund maintenance costs? Repairs, components replacement, preventive maintenance, spare parts...
The above lead in turn to other questions that must be also answered, depending on the financial scheme and operation business model selected. These subjects will be further developed in specific posts.

Summarizing, strong and robust institutional arrangements must be done from project conception to avoid that common technical problems arising in any power system may lead the project/program to failure, and thus wasting funds that are usually really complicated to achieve.

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