Emmanuel Mjemapemba is an advisor from the United Nations Development Program (UDP) working as an advisor to the Malawi Department of Energy (DOE). Within the DOE, he works on the development of decentralized and sustainable energy initiatives for Malawi. I was able to sit down with Emmanuel for a brief conversation about the prospects for a decentralized energy sector in Malawi, and what he views as some of the biggest challenges to scaling up decentralized and renewable energy within the country.
What is your role at the Department of Energy?
I am the program manager for UNDP energy programs in Malawi. UNDP has two programs in Malawi right now. The first is Increasing Access to Clean and Affordable Decentralized Energy, and the second is the Sustainable Energy Management Program.
What are some of the projects being implemented that are a part of the increased access to decentralized energy services program, and what is the role of UNDP in developing and implementing these projects?
Right now there is currently only one project in Malawi that we are supporting, which is the Mulanje Electricity Generation Agency, a micro-hydro scheme that supplies a mini-grid with electricity. We are assisting with expansion of the transmission and distribution capacity of the mini-grid, as well as trying to replicate the model in other parts of the country by seeking out social enterprises that could become mini-grid operators, then helping them to develop mini-grids of various type and design that make technical as well as economic sense. UNDP is also helping to build institutional capacity for a mini-grid sector with the Department of Energy and other stakeholders.
We are developing an information platform that details the steps required to develop mini-grids in Malawi as well as developing grid extension projections so investors can wisely choose sites for mini-grids that are unlikely to be reached and overtaken by grid extension. Such information reduces risk and uncertainty for investors and enterprises. We are also trying to revise regulations, because under the current regulations, mini-grid operators are given the same treatment as the national utility, which is a major barrier to their development. UDP is trying to create a business-type of approach so that mini-grids can be professionally managed, not just setting up mini-grids for communities and then expecting those communities to manage the mini-grids by themselves. But for mini-grids to be professionally managed, they need to be profitable. An economy of scale can be achieved with mini-grids if there are a number of them. It would be difficult to create a sustainable business model from just one mini-grid.
Are there government regulations in place to support the mini-grid sector?
There are, but without a proven process for independent power producers to operate in Malawi, the lack of regulations for power-purchase agreements and mini-grid integration with the centralized grid is a major issue. If mini-grid operators could be allowed to feed their excess power in to the centralized grid, it would greatly improve the economic viability of mini-grids as they would not waste the excess power that they produce and instead be able to sell that power. It would also reduce the cost of electricity for consumers.
What are some of the other major barriers to mini-grid development in Malawi?
Uncertainty for mini-grid operators and investors is a big one, especially around mini-grid integration with the centralized grid. There have not yet been any power-purchase agreements established in Malawi, so no outside players know what to expect from PPAs in Malawi. The other thing that is hindering development of mini-grids is a lack of solutions for the excess power that is produced by a mini-grid. Mini-grid operators need to promote electricity usage for productive uses in the daytime so more energy that is produced is being utilized. The income-generating benefits of productive uses of energy will then improve the capacity of community members to pay for and utilize electricity. Productive uss need to be promoted with mini—grids, not just basic services such as lighting.