Mapping Energy at the Last Mile

There’s good reason that electricity grid providers haven’t reached many parts of rural Nicaragua. The last mile is the hardest to reach and the terrain is often the most challenging. Infrastructure investment and maintenance costs more per mile in these areas, and beneficiaries are often more sparse. This cost of infrastructure includes roads, schools, the electrical grid, and water systems in both developed and developing nations. While developed nations are mostly organized about infrastructure investment, developing nations face greater challenges. 

Some of these services have long-standing decentralized solutions. Replacing individual wells (decentralized solution) with piped water (centralized solution) in rural areas, for example, is laughable because laying pipes through mountains is vastly more expensive than an individual well. Some types of infrastructure, like roads, are only useful with centralized solutions. They require physical routes and intersections for a physical network effect. Telephone lines used to be like this until cellphone towers provided a more distributed solution. Energy has long required centralized solutions, but the landscape is quickly changing and as costs for solar products drop, individual off-grid solutions make more and more sense in hard to reach places.

To take a look at the difference between off-grid energy providers and legacy systems in a developing country, we’re going to peak into the boardroom of (Spanish owned) Nicaraguan energy distributor, Union Fenosa. Nicaraguan census data meticulously scraped and presented by our data visualization team on energy access gives us a historical view of how they prioritize service.* In the numbers of who has grid electricity access and who doesn’t, are hidden energy distribution costs, revenue and ultimately, decisions of who has light at night and who doesn’t.

At the national scale, Nicaragua is the poorest country in the continental Americas, with a reported poverty rate of 42.5%. It is also the least electrified nation, with only 73% of the population having access to electric light. These numbers aren’t uniform across Nicaragua — different regions have strikingly different characteristics.

Percent of Nicaraguans who lack electric light by municipality

Try comparing this map with the map in the header.

Try comparing this map with the map in the header.

This map groups Nicaragua into five general regions; 

  1. Managua and surrounding areas.
  2.  Leon & Chinandega in the Pacific North.
  3. Granada & Rivas in the Pacific South.
  4. Matagalpa, Jinotega, Estelí, Madriz & Nueva Segovia in the mountainous North.
  5.  RAAN, RAAS and Rio San Juan in the East.

There’s a pretty clear trend visible. The region of Managua, for example, has great access to electricity, while the mountainous north and distant east have lower rates. Taken alone, it might seem odd that Managua has near universal energy access, while large swaths of northern and eastern regions have much lower energy access, but population density gives better clarity to the picture.

Population density of Nicaragua by municipality

Highest population density in Managua, while the Caribbean is mostly uninhabited lowland forest.

Highest population density in Managua, while the Caribbean is mostly uninhabited lowland forest.

When Union Fenosa and the Nicaraguan government decide which areas to focus on, their map looks a lot like this. The darkest areas (with the most residents per square km) have the greatest energy consumption, both in terms of number of individuals and also in terms of the energy demanded per individual. The city of Managua, for example, is home to 39% of Nicaragua’s population, and is just 1% of the landmass of the country.

Getting to places with lower population density is hard. Erecting electricity poles, laying wires, employing maintenance staff, and managing these roads in the rainy season make this area extra costly to serve, while potential customers are geographically sparse and have minimal electricity needs. With higher costs and lower revenue, it’s no surprise that rugged and rural locations are the bottom priority for grid electricity. 

How does the focus shift for off-grid energy providers who don’t need to erect poles and lay wires?

A Smarter Model — Density of People Without Electricity

Colibrí's Matagalpa Headquarters.

Colibrí's Matagalpa Headquarters.

How do places with such high density of unnelectrified people get overlooked? The answer has a lot to do with terrain. The island in the middle of Lake Nicaragua is an active volcano, while the north looks at least as rugged as the below picture. 

Serving these areas means worrying about downed trees, washed out roads, the occasional volcanic eruption, or any of the other daily annoyances of remote Nicaragua. All these difficulties means that even when the grid extends to these hard to reach areas, it likely goes out at least once a week, making off-grid a far more reliable solution. Because the energy usage of rural customers is generally lower, the last mile is the last to receive service. These interruptions are so frequent that many remain in “energy poverty” — unable to get the electricity they need. Ironically, the grid provides higher voltages at lower reliability to the last mile — in effect attempting to provide more electricity and delivering less. By contrast, off-grid providers can provide what fits a client’s budget and electricity needs. There are no upstream dependencies nor hidden costs for single serving solar.

Large coffee farm near Colibrí Headquarters — Grid solutions are challenging in this terrain and aren’t necessarily the best option.

Large coffee farm near Colibrí Headquarters — Grid solutions are challenging in this terrain and aren’t necessarily the best option.

The distribution challenges for an energy provider aren’t insignificant in these areas, but when energy production, transmission, and usage fits in the palm of the client’s hand, the per user cost is dramatically lower.

This portability means flexibility, and flexibility means a more agile distribution network that focuses on the highest persistent demands, unencumbered by the worst of the last mile distribution challenges.

Unlike coal, wind, geothermal, and hydroelectric, solar provides self sufficiency. Self sufficiency means no grid dependency. With no grid dependency, solar energy providers are given more distribution flexibility. Energy providers can meet clients and clients can carry electricity home with them in the palm of one hand. Last mile distribution challenges are significant, but this flexibility means that distributor and user can meet each other halfway.

Colibrí takes advantage of the portability of off-grid solutions by working with natural clusters of potential clients. Just as the density of off-grid people varies between municipality, it also varies by community. At even higher resolution, the social fabric and local economy often clusters anywhere from a couple dozen to a few hundred of off-grid customers together in a few square kilometers.

Rural communities are tied together by the agriculture they produce (and migrant workers who come for the harvest), the microfinance banks who serve them, religious communities, schools, local government and a myriad of other social networks. In lieu of poles and wires, these social networks act as Colibrí’s entry-point and infrastructure in providing energy access.

Decentralized solutions don’t always make sense, but for energy to reach the 2.5 billion people living in energy poverty, off-grid solar electricity is a game changer. Cellphones already leapfrogged landlines. Solar is in the process of leapfrogging the grid.

-James Downer, Founder at Colibrí

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An interactive version of this will soon be available on the Colibrí website.

*Data visualization done by James Downer with a big thanks to Founder Morgan Babbs and Dr. Judy Stone for the hours they invested helping with data compilation.

Morgan BabbsComment