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Artificial intelligence and rural African power

The energy sector has enjoyed great benefits from technological developments over the last few decades. That could be just the beginning

In the West, we rely on the grid, which provides most people with ample power.

In off-grid communities such as those in large parts of rural Africa, energy is a highly valued resource and consumers are much more aware of energy efficiency.

The limited energy that is available is disproportionately expensive and innovative solutions, such as small-scale renewable power, that cannot yet compete in the West, are gaining ground where, compared to the cost of the fossil fuels they replace, they are seen as a bargain.

Developments such as small solar home systems are bringing power for the first time to millions of off-grid consumers in sub-Saharan Africa, thanks to technological advances in LED lights, batteries and mobile payment, creating what many are referring to as the "clean energy revolution" in rural electrification.

Powering a continent

While LED lighting and phone charging were the first volume application in this rapidly evolving market, consumers of the clean energy revolution in Africa want, and increasingly demand, more.

Customers now expect to be able to access the latest technology, media and communications through the growth of the largely familiar pay-as-you-go technology, even in areas where there is no little or no grid access.

Critics of solar power have sometimes characterised the technology as being intermittent, dependent on the levels of sun-shine available, constraining distributed power's ability to be widely accepted as a sustainable alternative to the grid.

Following cloudy days with poor sunlight, most conventional solar home systems will turn off early at night, leaving households in darkness, making it difficult for customers to have confidence that the light will work all night-a situation rather like the "range anxiety" often found in electric car users.

Rather like electric cars, designers are looking to technologies outside the conventional sphere for solutions.

In many Western countries, most people still pay for their electricity using a meter that a human has to read once a quarter. In many parts of Africa paying for electricity is done using smart cards and mobile money technology, eliminating the need for meter readings, bills, consumer credit or payment delays.

So perhaps we should not be surprised that Artificial Intelligence (AI) is making its presence known, even in low cost domestic power systems.

The term itself might conjure images of futuristic robots or self-driving planes. But AI takes on a far more real-life application when delivered to address the challenges faced in everyday situations.

For example, Google is now using a new machine-learning technique to save on vast amounts of energy and money at its enormous data centres.

Smart meters, devices and technologies are changing consumers' relationship with energy consumption and helping to bring increased efficiency in the way devices utilise power.

Progress

With the emergence of the "Fourth Industrial Revolution", the home is increasingly an extension of customer. Rather than the occupant adapting to the home, the home works for those who live inside it. The recent emergence of AI in small solar home systems is extending this trend, adding intelligence to the end points of the network to optimise the system's performance in the customer's house, while at the same time allowing rich aggregate data to be managed across the population.

While Western consumers may still require some convincing about such smart tech in their homes, in rural Africa the use of smart home technology is being rapidly adopted.

In much the same way that mobile money is making up for a lack of banking infrastructure, so intelligent off-grid solar power connected by the mobile network is making up for the lack of a grid infrastructure. And this example of "reverse innovation" -where technology makes its impact first in emerging markets-is caused because the impact in off-grid communities is much greater.

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