Up the Energy Ladder: As appliances get more efficient, new opportunities in off-grid energy abound

Photo © Simpa Networks

By Jamie Manley

The off-grid energy industry is moving beyond lighting. Early off-grid solar systems were primarily used as a way to provide electric lights to the 1.2 billion people who do not have access to the power grid. Yet as off-grid appliances become more efficient, solar home systems and microgrid providers have been able to offer more advanced appliances like televisions, fans, and refrigerators to their customers. As a result, off-grid customers have more choices than ever before.

Electricity access can be viewed on a continuum. Basic low-power applications, such as lighting, are the first tier. Moving up the continuum requires that off-grid systems be capable of running higher-power appliances such as TVs or fans, or productive loads like water pumps. (A more detailed energy access framework can be found in this report.) While a large enough solar and battery system could theoretically power anything, improving appliance efficiency enables new functionality without the need for a larger system.

Lighting is the lowest-hanging fruit for energy access – it is an essential need that can be met with a low-cost solar lantern or a small solar home system. Indeed, two of the groups that track the off-grid industry most closely – IFC’s Lighting Global Initiative and the Global Off-Grid Lighting Initiative – show the off-grid industry’s early emphasis on lighting. But a number of factors have let the industry grow beyond lighting: solar module and battery costs are dropping, streamlined financing is enabling the purchase of larger systems, and perhaps most importantly: ultra-efficient appliances can do more with less power. As a result, a new generation of off-grid systems have emerged that can power a far wider range of appliances.

A 2016 survey from Global LEAP showed that the appliances most desired by off-grid customers were:

  • LED lighting
  • Televisions
  • Mobile/smart phones
  • Phone charging banks
  • Household refrigeration
  • Fans

The first wave of off-grid systems were able to address demand for lighting, phone charging, radio, and to some extent fans. Yet thanks to advances in appliance efficiency, more advanced appliances like televisions, refrigeration, and evaporative coolers are increasingly being offered as part of off-grid appliance bundles.

Estimated power rating for off-grid appliances (watts)

Source: 2018 Global Off-Grid Solar Market Trends Report

Take televisions as an example: a CRT TV might consume ~50 watts (W), whereas a 19” LCD TV consumes closer to 30W. Future LCD TVs could be as low as 10W, thanks to improvements in LED efficiency, backlight dimming, optical films, and ambient light sensors. Companies like Barefoot Power and Simpa Networks have already started to offer LCD TVs as part of their product offerings. TVs also provide an opportunity for new strategic partnerships between off-grid companies and satellite TV providers.  Azuri Technology’s has partners with with StarTime to provides Azuri’s customers access to over 100 channels on a pay-as-you-go basis. This combination provides entertainment and new sources of information to off-grid communities.

Refrigerators are also becoming increasingly feasible in off-grid applications. Brushless variable DC compressors and improved insulation materials have enabled 100L refrigerators to go from consuming around 100W for a standard on-grid appliance to 45W for a purpose-built off-grid appliance today, and potentially as low as 30W in the future. There are a number of promising off-grid refrigerators on the market today. Barefoot Power offers a 55L fridge powered by a 155W solar panel, while others like chotuKool offer a compressor-free solution that consumes 62W and can run off of both AC or DC power. Improved access to refrigeration could enable a variety of public health benefits, from to preserving fresh produce to storing temperature-sensitive vaccines in health clinics.

Finally, off-grid providers are starting to offer fans and other air cooling solutions. While fans have been available in off-grid systems for a while, they are becoming easier to include with smaller solar systems as efficiency improves.  A 12” table fan that might typically consume 40W when purchased for on-grid usage now have ultra-efficient off-grid counterparts that only consume 10-12W.

While traditional compressor-based air conditioners are generally too energy-intensive for off-grid applications, other solutions, such as evaporative cooling fans or targeted cooling, could provide improvements over regular fans. For example, Simpa Networks recently released a 50W DC evaporative cooler that can cool a 900 sq ft. room by passing water across evaporative pads in the fan to create chilled air. There may also be opportunities for localized cooling that target only the portion of a room where inhabitants will be located. A good on-grid example is Ambio’s AC Blanket, which uses a small AC unit and an insulated blanket to cool just the small area between the bed and the blanket instead of the entire room. The blanked requires 80% less electricity compared to a regular split air conditioner. Similarly targeted solutions may be possible in off-grid applications.

Ultra-efficient appliances are making off-grid energy systems increasingly capable – moving them from simple lighting systems to full-featured energy solutions than can provide a range of useful services to off-grid customers. As these systems expand to serve a wider variety of needs, the market for off-grid will only grow: creating a win-win for off-grid customers and  energy providers alike.



Jamie Manley is a Clean Energy Leadership Institute Fellow (San Francisco, Spring 2018).