Beyond-the-Grid Sector Matures With New Finance and Projects

01/22/2015 11:21 am ET Updated Mar 24, 2015

Public finance for the beyond-the-grid solar sector is important, as tools like loan guarantees de-risk investment and enable private investment to flow into the market. U.S. government agencies like USAID, the U.S. Trade and Development Agency (USTDA), and the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) are among the agencies that support clean energy projects overseas. Recent developments in their support for the beyond-the-grid sector -- and the emergence of new products in the field -- show that the sector is maturing and continuing to attract investment.

In a recent press release, the USTDA and OPIC announced that the U.S.-Africa Clean Energy Finance (ACEF) initiative has achieved commitment of 100 percent of the initial project funds to be administered through the initiative. This is an exciting milestone for ACEF, which was launched by former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, at the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in 2012 and is an indication that funding continues to flow to clean energy access.

We've long been supportive of ACEF, which provides early-stage funding for clean energy projects in sub-Saharan Africa and plays a catalytic role in attracting private sector investment. So far, the initiative has committed funds to 30 clean energy projects in 10 countries, ranging from centralized grid-connected projects to small-scale projects in rural, off-grid areas.

ACEF's support for off-grid companies like M-KOPA, Off-Grid Electric, d.light, and KMRI has made OPIC a leader among among U.S. agencies in terms of financing beyond-the-grid energy access, which has the power to change lives.

It is for this reason that we have been supportive of a clean Congressional reauthorization of OPIC and supportive of the U.S. government's "Beyond the Grid" sub-initiative of the Power Africa initiative.

Outside of the investments from OPIC, there are also other investments by the U.S. government which show that the beyond-the-grid sector of clean energy continues to grow. For example, USAID's Development Innovative Ventures (DIV) initiative invested $100,000 in Angaza Design in June 2013, a for-profit social enterprise which provides hardware and software for pay-as-you-go systems of financing pico-solar devices.

Companies like Angaza Design show that the off-grid solar sector is becoming a mature industry. While some companies are vertically integrated and try to handle all aspects of producing, managing, and distributing solar products, Angaza Design has focused exclusively on the Pay-As-You-Go segment of the supply chain, leading to a powerful ability to compile big data. This means that customers may have the opportunity to build credit profiles for the first time.

In an exciting development, Greenlight Planet has announced its launch of the Sun King Eco Easy Buy solar lamp which integrates Angaza Design's Pay-As-You-Go platform. To date, Greenlight Planet has sold solar products to more than three million off-grid households in India and sub-Saharan Africa. The new product combines an existing solar lamp (Sun King Eco) with Angaza Design's PAYG-specific sub-circuit, making this the first commercial demonstration of Angaza Design's licensing business model.

The integrated product allows the lamp to "talk" to the cloud and react according to payment status, which is manually entered by distributors. This means that the product is "locked" if a payment has not been received. If customers later decide to upgrade to a higher wattage Greenlight Planet product, they can maintain their existing data record on the Angaza system and continue to develop their "credit" score. This system combines affordability for customers with reduced costs for companies that want to extend credit by allowing customers to remotely ensure that payments are being made.

These recent developments -- public finance from OPIC's ACEF initiative and an exciting new product from Greenlight Planet and Angaza Design -- are an indication that investment continues to flow into the beyond-the-grid sector, that the industry is maturing, and that the tremendous need for energy access worldwide continues to drive innovation that is transforming how energy is delivered.