(CNN)The electrification gap is widely recognized as one of the primary barriers to development in sub-Saharan African countries.
An estimated 600 million people in the region live without reliable power and all that goes with it.
A growing number of electrical entrepreneurs are stepping into the breach. Companies such as M-Kopa and BBOXX offer contained solar power systems to off-grid communities, and US company Zola Electric — formerly Off Grid Electric — supplies “Solar as a service” to isolated areas.
Zola Electric, which recently appointed Tesla alumni Lyndon and Peter Rive to its board, is now launching a new power system that could have an even greater impact.
Zola’s “Infinity” product serves as a standalone “mini grid” that draws on multiple energy inputs and a smart storage system to provide continuous power.
Infinity can be connected to an existing grid, solar power units, and backup generators, switching seamlessly between them when they fail. The lithium battery also stores energy so that power is maintained if all inputs fail at the same time, according to its makers.
The system “optimizes energy sources” according to CEO Bill Lenihan.
“If the sun is out and solar is working I can use solar to power my battery,” he says. “If the grid is on and the sun is down I can use grid power. If the sun is down and the grid is off and my battery is not powerful enough to turn on a fridge I might prioritize the generator.”
CNN observed one of the first demonstrations of the technology applied to various high-consumption devices such as hairdryers in the company’s San Francisco headquarters. The system is described as “infinitely scalable” – a large enough version of the kit could serve a mid-sized business.
Zola, like M-Kopa and BBOXX, has until now largely focused on providing solutions for off-grid communities. The company claims to serve a million customers with its pay-as-you-go solar service.
The Infinity system is “adaptable to off-grid, weak grid, and microgrid use cases.” But Zola are particularly targeting urban markets. Around 25 percent of people living in urban areas in sub-Saharan Africa lack access to power.
Lenihan says that his team had Lagos in mind during development of the technology, a global megacity where residents and businesses are often hamstrung by spotty access to power.
“Lagos is the most energy literate market in the world,” says Lenihan. “Consumers know more about energy than anyone in the US because they have to provision their own energy and live with that every day.”
Zola are anticipating widespread adoption, and have heavyweight investors including Tesla, Total and EDF.
“We expect every home and business in a country like Nigeria to adopt this if they make more than $400 a month,” says Zola co-founder and chief technology officer Xavier Helgesen. “People are already spending that money and burning it up in smoke on diesel generators.”
The technology will be available through financing arrangements that spread the cost, and Lenihan says the total price will not be “meaningfully more” than $1,000.
A side benefit of the technology is that it could lead to an improvement in air quality in cities such as Lagos, the CEO suggests.
If Infinity proves as popular as its creators expect, the use of high-polluting diesel generators will be greatly reduced.