One of the key messages from COP26 is the need for a fair and just transition that includes people of all economic backgrounds, especially those in rural communities with little or no access to electricity.
An increasing number of governments are heeding the call to expand financing to projects and companies helping support these communities, including next-generation utility Bboxx, which offers off-grid pay-as-you-go solar PV systems to a host of markets in Africa to help electrify household systems that might have ordinarily run using fossil fuel-run generators or kerosene lamps.
With COP26 having recently closed, Current± spoke to Bboxx co-founder Christopher Baker-Brian and Mohsen Mohseninia, VP of European market development at Aeris, the IoT connectivity leader, to discuss the role emergent technologies are playing in boosting the adoption and use of off-grid solar technology and, critically, what hurdles need to fall for it to gain further adoption.
Current±: COP26 comes at a critical juncture for renewables and other clean technologies, when it comes to these areas, what should policymakers’ objectives be at the summit?
Christopher Baker-Brian: Policymakers need to be aware there’s a lot of really good news coming out of Africa, and really a lot of positive things happening with respect to renewable energy on the continent that’s showcasing the way for the rest of the world in terms of the ability to transition to a low carbon economy.
Because there isn’t as much legacy infrastructure in place in Africa, often you’re starting from almost a blank slate and you can very quickly move forward with low carbon technologies and we can lead on cleaner solutions from day one.
There’s still lots to do, of course, and a lot of investment is needed to secure that transition. What’s really key to enable that scale is partnerships between the private sector and governments to make that happen and unlock those technologies.
Current±: What are those key benefits of incorporating new and emerging energy technologies, such as AI and IOT, that are helping the spread of renewables?
Baker-Brian: One of the areas we’re working with Aeris on is the use of IoT in remote monitoring and the ability to remotely monitor our solar products in the field. That brings three benefits to the sector in general. First, it brings visibility to investors and the people who are involved in funding installations in this space around the usage of these products. We can automatically see and get real-time usage, data, location data, and behavioral lessons of the customers as to how they’re using these products.
Second, it’s helping the financing to happen, so we’re able to remotely connect to the unit over the mobile network, with customers using mobile money to pay for energy only when they use it.
Third, it’s helping to develop understanding and learnings for the future. Our insights mean we can better understand how we can build new products and design new appliances, or sizes of systems that might be more suitable or more cost-effective for rural households or demographics we’re targeting. We can optimize our product mix for the customer’s needs.
Current±: Are those learnings already happening? Have you got a particular example?
Baker-Brian: Yes, so in the beginning, we had what are called security lights – basically someone runs a light all night, outside of their house, to help with security. It’s the sort of thing in a traditional survey, you ask someone ‘how are you using your product’ and they will tell you ‘I’m running my light in the evenings from 6 pm till 9 pm’. But actually, when you look at the data and you can see this usage, it’s very clear a large proportion of houses are running lights throughout the entire night.
That’s helped us design things like security sensors for the lights, so they switch on and off based on motion. And we can design or optimize the brightness of the lightness from the data to deliver a better product for the future. Other examples would include the development of lower power versions of existing products, all of which is educated by the data we get via the IoT platform.
Current±: While renewables are established now, it’s become clear new technologies can help their spread, especially into markets such as Africa where more progress is needed. What are the key hurdles technologies such as IoT and AI can ease?
Mohsen Mohseninia: Increasingly the value of IoT to help deal with environmental challenges is being recognized, be it in delivering clean energy to households in rural Africa or monitoring water irrigation for better yield in agricultural fields. However, there are also barriers being put up by some telco operators that can potentially limit the commercial viability of deploying and scaling such solutions.
Current±: And why is that?
Mohseninia: Because of roaming charges, and policymakers involved need to consider these barriers. They need to devise and develop policies and regulations that lower barriers to allow further deployment and the rollout of IoT to further enhance the clean agenda. There’s pressure on policymakers, and some operators are starting to think about putting artificial charges on IoT devices relating to roaming, which is putting costs up for organizations that want to roll out these solutions. Markets like Brazil, India, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia are limiting the ability to deploy commercially viable solutions, and we all need regulatory involvement to help solve that.
Current±: What’s needed to develop and further enhance the role new technologies can play in renewables development and clean transport? Is it a case of greater collaboration between industry stakeholders?
Baker-Brian: There are three areas it boils down. Number one, we’ve mentioned the policy environment and
, the regulatory frameworks from governments. We need support schemes or subsidies that help households adopt these technologies, making them even more accessible particularly for the very low-income households. Number two is more financing to help reach the hundreds of millions of people around the world without access to electricity. That requires huge amounts of capital to be deployed, and both public and private money is needed to assist in doing that. And lastly, we need to be able to scale up operations, whether that’s through attracting talent or making people aware of this sector and the impact we have. We need to attract new people to join us on this mission to transform lives and unlock potential through access to energy.