Data from up to around 22,500 smart meters provides one of the most advanced analyses of rural microgrid use to date.

The data revealed by smart meter developer SparkMeter, which specializes in microgrids for emerging markets such as Haiti, Nigeria and India, shows that the microgrid setups tend to deliver only small amounts of power and make only small amounts of money.

While SparkMeter’s product portfolio contains meters of up to 200 amps, the company has found the maximum load per user is usually capped at a low level in most rural settings.

Peak loads, meanwhile, are usually much less than the maximum allowance. Most customers draw less than 500 watts of power.

Since most SparkMeter-equipped rural microgrids have fewer than 200 users, this means the peak load each microgrid must support is also correspondingly small, around 2 kilowatts or less.

Similarly, over the course of a month the average consumption per user is only around 2 kilowatt-hours.

Payments are small, too, with customers rarely paying more than a dollar at a time.

This is an important factor to bear in mind when planning business models to support the rollout of rural microgrids, said Arthur Jacquiau-Chamski, SparkMeter’s vice president of product management, at this month’s Microgrid Global lnnovation Forum in Barcelona, Spain.

Yet while payments are small, they are also made frequently, the data shows. Most users pay for electricity at least twice a month, with payment peaks coming at the beginning and the end of every 30-day period.

The data, culled from up to 90 percent of SparkMeter’s 25,000 meter deployments in 17 countries, also shows there are four major load profiles in the rural microgrid world.

Perhaps the most demanding profile, which SparkMeter has dubbed "daytime baseload," is found in 31 percent of sites and accounts for 39 percent of energy consumption. It is characterized by steady daytime usage and an evening peak.

Another 31 percent of sites have what SparkMeter calls "evening only" usage, where consumption is minimal except for an 8 p.m. peak. This has the lowest consumption profile, accounting for just 7 percent of power consumed on SparkMeter-equipped microgrids.

A further 21 percent of sites have "daytime bump" consumption, with relatively high diurnal use ending in a marked evening peak. This profile accounts for 23 percent of energy consumption.

Finally, 15 percent of sites have "mostly daytime" use, where consumption is generally high throughout daylight hours and there is no evening peak to speak of.

Accounting for 30 percent of energy consumption, this pattern may indicate the presence of light commercial or industrial activity.

The data comes from SparkMeter’s worldwide installed base, which has processed more than 100,000 payments at an average of around $1.75 each.

The smart meters have dished out more than 320 megawatt-hours, which equates to an average electricity cost of around $0.55 per kilowatt-hour. 

Further analysis of the SparkMeter data shows the average monthly revenue per user per site is usually less than $5 and never more than $9.

Jacquiau-Chamski highlighted the challenge facing rural electrification programs by noting that SparkMeter’s basic meters cost $35, yet the average value of energy they had delivered so far was just $7.

The fact that rural microgrid investors may face a lengthy payback period is one reason why SparkMeter is keen to share its data. Investors cannot turn to traditional analysts for information upon which to base decisions, Jacquiau-Chamski noted. 

“It’s really important the data from the field can be used by operators to scale up,” he said.

Update: Jacquiau-Chamski clarified that the "ARPU per site" chart is showing monthly figures -- each data point is the Average Revenue Per User per month for a given site. As a consequence, it is the monthly average revenue per customer that varies between $5 per month and $9 per month depending on the site. These numbers reflect the reality of village microgrids better than the figure of $7 of energy delivered per meter on average, because the $7 figure doesn't reflect the fact that the majority of meters sold were installed in the recent past or at sites that are not fully commercially operational yet. In any case, Jacquiau-Chamski said, the low value of this monthly ARPU (under $10 per month per connection) illustrates the challenges facing rural electrification programs and rural utilities, which make innovation and optimization at every level a necessity.