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14.02.2020, Tobias Engelmeier

How data changes energy access

The growth of data technologies and digital solutions is changing industries across the world – and it will also change the energy access industry, with its specific challenges of the remoteness, inaccessibility and low purchasing power of customers. Many stakeholders are already working with different data solutions, in the expectation that they can help them achieve scale, address risks (especially customer and market risks) and reduce costs (capital costs, operating costs, financing costs).

Over the past year, a team at TFE Energy researched into how the large-scale and often real-time collection, analysis and use of all kinds of datasets, enabled by the rapid, global technology shift called “digitalization,” is in the process of transforming the energy access industry. We screened over 200 companies and more than 100 investors, conducted nearly 50 interviews and collected 12 in-depth case studies on digital solutions. We recognize and are thankful for the great spirit of cooperation in the energy access community. It has been a hugely insightful journey for us and we hope our report on “Energy Access, Data and Digital Solutions” is useful and appreciate any feedback.

We clustered the currently available digital solutions into four categories (digital planning, digital platforms, digital operations and digital payments) and assessed their maturity and impact on scalability, cost and risk.

  • Digital planning tools are used to get perspective and gather market intelligence on remote regions. Data analytics is currently used for least-cost electrification planning at the country level, for selecting suitable sites for mini-grids and to predict customer characteristics in the OGS industry. The use of satellite imagery-based analytics has the potential to greatly increase the speed at which the energy access industry can scale and significantly reduce the costs of site and customer acquisition. Data, including satellite-based data, can be used to plan mini-grid systems, perform feasibility studies on these systems to predict their viability and inform better policy choices (such as performance based grants).
     
  • Digital platforms seek to reduce transaction and financing costs in the industry. Such platforms come in mainly two forms. The first is the project aggregation platform (used mostly for mini-grids), which collects performance data on portfolios of projects and drives the industry towards quality and process standards, thereby de-risking investments. The second is the crowdfunding platform. These leverage a “crowd” of investors who are more accepting of the risks associated with the energy access market. Crowdfunding has outright funded a number of early energy access projects and has enabled companies to test new business models and collect data used to receive subsequent funding.
     
  • Digital operations include solutions like remote monitoring, which enable companies to collect data on their deployed systems. Due to the remoteness and dispersion of the OGS and mini-grid markets, costs associated with traveling to customers to perform maintenance can greatly increase operating expenses. As a result, being able to remotely identify and troubleshoot problems has greatly reduced the operating expenses of energy access companies. Likewise, detailed information on user behavior allows companies to improve and customize their service offerings. Digital operations also include lockout technologies and devices that can be remotely controlled.
  • Digital payments have been enabled by the high penetration of mobile phones, wide coverage of 2G cellular services and supportive policies for mobile money in some countries. Digital payments allow rural (often unbanked) customers to pay for services and products remotely and securely. This addresses the significant challenge of payment collection in rural, remote regions. In addition, energy access companies use digital payments data to leverage customer credit risk analytics to identify customers for upselling, encouraging them to move up the energy ladder.
     

Our report starts off with three introductory chapters explaining how the parallel growth of energy access products and services coincides and interacts with the evolution of digital solutions. Then, we describe the four above mentioned clusters of digital solutions in detail. Lastly, we look at how digital solutions can be financed and share ideas on what could be done next.

 

The report can be downloaded here

 

Dr. Tobias Engelmeier is Founder and CEO of TFE Energy to provide consulting services on industries that are undergoing rapid transformation.