A small-scale snow cone operation has come to Mali. Women in two remote villages are peddling small, sweet, frozen drinks that are sold wholesale to women in other neighboring villages.  

The business, which is centered on a new community freezer, would not be possible without one key ingredient: electricity. Until recently, the women in the two villages lived as 1.3 billion other people do, without regular access to electricity.

The electrification of thee villages did not come from wires being extended by the local utility, but from a microgrid project called SharedSolar that was developed by Columbia University’s Earth Institute as part of the Millennium Village Project.

Microgrids are often discussed in the U.S. and Europe, but outside of defense departments and a few universities, true microgrids are cost-prohibitive in countries where affordable, reliable electricity is readily available.

In Sub-Saharan Africa, many parts of Asia and some areas of Latin America, the outlook is quite different. Microgrids can provide basic electricity services where none were available before.

“Here, it’s efficiency and conservation, and there, it’s growth and expansion,” said Rajesh Menon, a software engineer working on SharedSolar. He noted that the cost of kerosene, the most common fuel source in African villages that do not have electricity, can be far more expensive than what nearby towns pay for electricity. The difference can be as high as a factor of 10.

Some villages are extremely remote, which makes utilities unwilling to string power lines to far-flung locales. Other times, it might just be across the street from a hotel that has air-conditioning blasting, but the small village just isn’t as high of a priority for the local utility.

SharedSolar began by looking at the model of microfinancing for solar panels for individual homes and wondering if they could provide a better system. Individual solar homes are still too expensive, even as solar prices dropped, but if solar panels and batteries are integrated into one central unit, the cost for the village can be more attractive.

The team developed a fully contained, scalable microgrid that includes solar PV, batteries and meters. The electricity is delivered to homes and businesses in the community via underground wires. The system is operated by software developed at the Earth Institute that includes a gateway for remote management of the sites and a local intelligence layer.

The secret sauce is prepaid submetering. Usually, there are 10 to 20 meters on one system. The smart meters communicate over mobile networks, but instead of being 4G LTE or GSM/GPRS, the meters are talking over SMS. The SMS networks aren’t nearly as robust as other mobile networks, but it gets the job done for a low cost. The local software is key, so that a lot of data doesn’t have to be relayed over spotty SMS channels.

Although customers in the village can refill their meters by making a payment via a cell phone, they prefer to give money to another person. To meet the cultural needs of the village, the project developed an Android app and gave it to a local businessman, usually the person who used to sell kerosene. The seller can then take the money for electricity, go to the shed that houses the core of the microgrid and switch circuits on accordingly.

There is not a fixed cost to the microgrids, because they are built to be modular to meet the individual needs of each community. More solar panels and batteries can be added as electricity use increases. The project organizers at the Earth Institute are installing them as fast as they can to keep up with demand. In Uganda, there’s enough sunshine even during the rainy season to provide for the electricity needs.

Eventually, local communities will take over the operation of the system. Each country currently has a site manager for each location, and a country manager to oversee all of the projects. Menon said there has been a lot of interest from rural electrification agencies, and utilities are also interested in expanding their customer base for less money than it would take to run wires to many of the areas that currently do not have electricity.

Menon noted that there is a lot of upfront cost if the project decides it wants to provide a “microgrid in a box” to then sell to energy supply companies. It might be cheaper and more scalable to sell the software that runs the microgrids to rural electrification agencies, and help them source the components of the microgrid.  

The problem with scaling up is also about finding the right technology. Solar costs continue to fall, but batteries and meters could still be cheaper. For metering, there is not an off-the-shelf solution that the Earth Institute can use. Menon is hoping that as there are more successful pilots, more technology vendors will be interested in this burgeoning market. Recently, there has been a lot of interest from Chinese battery companies.

Another issue is scaling up responsibly, and knowing that there is adequately trained local support for each site. “It’s one thing to say, ‘Let’s go deploy here,’” said Menon. “It’s another to say, ‘How do we manage it?’ and know it’s being served.”

After success in Uganda and Mali, the project is considering expansion into Haiti and Kenya. The electricity is not just allowing for new businesses like the women selling ice, or a tailor who can now stay open later and offer a cell phone charging service.

Steady electricity also offers the opportunity for temperature-sensitive medications to be kept refrigerated, and it can reduce the health burden of burning kerosene lamps indoors. The World Health Organization estimates that nearly 50 percent of pneumonia deaths in children under five are due to particulate matter inhaled from indoor air pollution.

“By 2030, there’s actually an increase of the number of people who won’t be electrified,” said Menon. Bill Gates, who is not involved with the project, recently contended at an energy conference that raising the living standard for the world’s poorest billion people is directly related to finding affordable, clean energy for those populations.

“When you go to a place where there’s no electricity and then you switch on the lights,” Menon mused, “it’s difficult to even explain the impact.”