Financing for off-grid renewable energy companies continues to grow. Last month, DBL Partners led a $25 million round in Off Grid Electric, signaling an increasing interest from private investors and traditional venture capitalists in the space.
Still, investments from governments and development banks are crucial. And there has been no shortage of announcements in this area.
The U.S. federal government's development institution, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, recently committed $15 million to off-grid power provider Txtlight Power, which operates as Lumos.
The funds from OPIC will allow Lumos to scale up its pay-as-you-go clean power offering. The Amsterdam-based company brings together solar panels, indoor energy storage and a connection unit so that people can pay for power as they need it via text message. The company is partnered with Nigeria's largest telecom company, MTN.
OPIC also provided early support to Off Grid Electric, the company supported by DBL and SolarCity.
Speaking at a SunEdison event earlier this year, Diana Jensen, senior manager of renewable energy at OPIC, noted that her organization is focused on high-impact investments.
“Everyone thinks it's about the volume of money. But it's about the right type of capital at the right time.” she said. “And culture matters even more than technology.”
The $15 million to Lumos is OPIC's largest investment in the off-grid power sector in Africa to date.
There are an estimated 1.3 billion people globally without access to modern power and at least another 1 billion with unreliable grid access. The U.S. government has pledged more money for off-grid energy investments through other mechanisms such as its Power Africa aid effort. USAID just announced a new $75 million loan guarantee to scale up off-grid investment in sub-Saharan Africa.
Additionally, the Millennium Challenge Corporation recently announced it will provide $46 million for off-grid electrification in Benin. It is MCC's largest off-grid investment and will support technology and policy reform. The aid organization is investing a total of $375 million in Benin, including solar, thermal and hydro generation and distribution infrastructure in the West African country.
Not to be left out of the effort, the U.K. government announced its Energy Africa campaign this month, which will provide investment to off-grid energy companies, accelerate the deployment of solar, and work on regulatory barriers for clean energy access in Africa.
As a starting point, the U.K. committed £1 million ($1.5 million) to Power for All, an organization that works with the private and public sector in a dozen African countries to enable distributed clean-energy access.
In many countries, however, there is emerging government support for distributed solutions. In Tanzania, for instance, the government has chosen Off Grid Electric to power 1 million homes by 2017. Benin, Bangladesh and Kenya are developing standards for off-grid appliances. The sale of small-scale solar products in Africa has swelled in five years from 40,000 to nearly 7.5 million in 2014.
To help countries further develop standards and products, the U.S. Department of Energy is providing incentives to accelerate the global off-grid appliance market and support for product testing and standards development through its Global Lighting and Energy Access Partnership (Global LEAP).
As governments provide support, impact investors are increasingly interested in this market. Angaza recently raised $4 million to scale up its pay-as-you-go electricity model. The Social Entrepreneurs' Fund led the round.
Instead of providing just solar lanterns or solar panels, Angaza's pay-as-you-go technology can be embedded in a range of off-grid clean energy products. The communications chip allows for the product to be turned on and off based on mobile payments, essentially creating a prepaid metering system. Micropayments could lead to a fourfold increase in sales for distributors of clean energy products. The San Francisco-based startup has operations in various African countries as well as Pakistan and India.
The Global Off-Grid Lighting Association estimates today's off-grid solar market at $300 million annually. That's still a fraction of what is spent on lighting generally in developing countries. The 1.3 billion who have no access to electricity spend an estimated $30 billion annually on kerosene.