ENGIE Equatorial is a joint venture between ENGIE Energy Access, an international renewable energy solution provider, and Equatorial Power, a local low-carbon energy infrastructure and services developer based in Kampala, Uganda.
In December 2022, ENGIE Equatorial completed their PREO-funded pilot testing the deployment of electric outboards (e-outboards) amongst the fishing community on Lolwe, a small island in Lake Victoria. The pilot sought to understand the technical and commercial viability of replacing combustion boat engines with e-outboards that cut greenhouse gas emissions, reduce pollution, and drive down operating costs for fishermen.
The transition from petrol-powered boat engines to e-outboards not only has the potential to improve fisherfolks livelihoods, but it can also boost energy demand from the 600 kWp hybrid solar mini-grid commissioned by ENGIE Equatorial in January 2022. The mini-grid supplies affordable, reliable electricity access to more than 3,800 households and businesses on the island. It also offers fish-drying and refrigeration facilities to preserve the daily catch of fish, water purification systems for affordable clean drinking water and charging systems for electric transportation. In addition, ENGIE Equatorial provides business incubation and microfinance to support entrepreneurs operating within the fishing value-chain as they set up new businesses powered by the mini-grid.
ENGIE Equatorial’s mini-grid business model puts emphasis on stimulating the uptake of electricity across a range of commercial activities. On the one hand it helps promote the development of the island’s economy, and on the other, it attains a sizeable and predictable rate of electricity consumption from local users that the mini-grid needs to be commercially sustainable (and potentially scalable). In this context, the electrification of the fishing fleet could play an important role as it can muster substantial and flexible electricity load for the mini-grid.
PREO interviewed Abishek Bharadwaj, Chief Technology Officer at Equatorial Power, as the pilot was coming to an end to learn about their experience and capture some of the key lessons learned.
Q: What were the objectives of the PREO project and how did you plan to achieve them?
In Lolwe, as in most of Lake Victoria’s 900+ islands, people’s lives revolve around fishing, but the scarcity of petrol and its increasingly high prices weigh heavily on the small island’s residents. Our research shows that an average fishing boat uses up to 15 litres of petrol each day with the cost of petrol varying between $1.5-1.7 per litre on the island, but many additionally spend $10-$40 on engine oil. These daily outlays substantively reduce the profits of already struggling fisherfolk. In addition, their ageing, noisy and often unreliable petrol outboards consume high volumes of fuel and produce carbon emissions. With an estimated 1,100 boats in use in Lolwe, substituting some of the petrol outboards with electric models would bring tangible social and environmental benefits to the entire community.
With this project we set out to assess whether it is technically and commercially viable to replace traditional fishing boat engines with electric outboards and whether the use of electricity by the fishing fleet could provide a reliable day-time anchor-load to boost the mini-grid’s economics.
To do that, we set up charging infrastructure connected to the mini-grid and equipped 15 fishing boats with electric outboards. We then looked at various factors, for example, how the fuel and maintenance costs are reduced, the impact on fishermen’s incomes through cost-savings, the positive environmental impacts through reduced air and water pollution, and the load that the electrified fishing fleets provide for the grid.
The PREO grant provided the risk mitigation needed to run the necessary testing of both the electric fishing fleet and the new mini-grid business model which is crucial if we want to deploy the project’s vision in full and scale it up commercially across Equatorial Power and ENGIE’s pipelines.
Q: How did the fishermen react to using electric outboards and how has that informed your strategy for increasing adoption?
At the start of the project, the local fishing community took part in surveys and market research. When the e-outboards were introduced in the second quarter of 2022, approximately 50 of them attended demos and training sessions showing curiosity and commercial interest. In the following phase during the third quarter of 2022, four ambassadors were selected to test the engine in real fishing activities and create awareness among the community.
Based on the feedback, we developed a commercial offer to rent the outboards on a weekly basis at a flat fee. We trained more users and set up a stable renting activity, targeting mainly silverfish fishermen and owners of internal combustion engine boats.
What we found is that the electric outboards were perceived to be weaker than the internal combustion engines. The boats’ cruise speed was considered to be lower, and the engine not powerful enough. However, this was at odds with our technical test results, as the data collected by GPS devices showed that the speed range was comparable to the internal combustion engines. So now the team is engaging the community in further tests and educational campaigns to clarify that the cruise speed is only perceived to be lower because there is less noise from the engine.
Q: What challenges did you face during the project implementation phase and how did you work around them?
At the beginning, the main challenge was to size the engine and battery bank to match the internal combustion engine performance and meet customers’ expectations. We adopted theoretical approaches, but in the end, it was the experience of private manufacturers and suppliers that informed the final setup.
Gathering information about the local economy was challenging as it varies significantly according to personal behavior, type of fish, type of boat and the season. We had to put more effort into data collection and initial testing to provide more clarity on these matters.
The weight of the batteries was an issue, as they had to be loaded and offloaded for recharging every day. As a partial solution, we opted for smaller, lighter battery modules that did not exceed 30 kg in weight per module.
Another challenge was related to the maintenance of the equipment. Many of the components had minor damage in the first few months of operation and in a few cases, equipment had to be temporarily decommissioned. The engine and batteries are generally expensive and may not last 10 years as originally thought. A robust operation design is needed to prevent damage and reduce replacement costs.
Finally, fishermen travelling more than 10-15km from the island preferred to use the internal combustion engines motors to avoid reducing speed and saving energy, as timing and autonomy play key roles in this type of business and fishermen are willing to pay more for the flexibility that fuel provides. We understood that we need to tailor the technical design to the user and explore more powerful and energy-dense propelling systems for specific market segments.
Q: What are the key financial outcomes that demonstrate the positive impact of transitioning to electric outboards?
The main selling point for the average user is the reduction in operational costs. Our research found that even once the fishermen had paid a rental fee for the e-outboard and a fee to recharge their batteries, they still saved half their previous budget for gasoline.
We also found that a reduction in cruise speed of 15% would result in a battery saving of around 50%, meaning the boats can double it’s coverable distance. And the lower costs allow the fishing businesses to pay back the high upfront cost of the e-outboard within 3.2 years, saving around $6,328 over the average 10-year lifespan of the vehicle.
Driving down operating costs also helps take the pressure off low-income fishermen who are burdened by rising fossil fuel prices caused by the war in Ukraine, enabling them to direct more of their income towards other priorities such as household expenses, education and healthcare.
Q: Which other key technical, financial, and environmental lessons can be derived from the PREO project?
We conducted a techno-economic and environmental assessment and gained lots of valuable insights. We learned that whilst e-outboards are perceived to be a life-changing technology and the concept has been proven to work, there are several issues that we still need to address to make it financially sustainable. For example, although e-outboards require less maintenance than internal combustion engines, when faults do occur there is little expertise or spare parts available on the island as it is a new technology. In addition, manufacturers and suppliers do not often have presence in Africa, and thus are not able to provide support on site or replacements.
Another problem that we faced is that energy demand from boats – and therefore revenues for Engie Equatorial – tend to fluctuate from season to season. This has implications for the business plan, as it’s difficult to make accurate projections on cash flows. A year on since commissioning the mini-grid, the e-mobility business on Lolwe has not achieved economic sustainability. On the other hand, ENGIE Equatorial has gained a wealth of knowledge and we intend to keep testing existing and new technologies and finally reach a scale-up plan.
On the environmental side, it’s estimated that each boat can save around 3.46 tons of CO2 equivalent GHG per year, so the 15 outboards on Lolwe would save around 519 tons of CO2 equivalent over 10 years. Having said that, it’s important to also mention that these results only consider the operational phase and a detailed life cycle assessment would be needed.
Financially, we have not yet identified the right commercial offer (i.e., the right product leasing price) to achieve economic sustainability, but there are many opportunities in the market still to be explored. For example, as asset financing/micro finance institutions are learning more about the benefits of e-outboards, they see the potential of creating bespoke financing mechanisms for consumers. Not only that, but the increased demand for electricity by fishing enterprises can become a consistent anchor load for the solar mini-grid plant itself – and help to ensure the long-term sustainability of the mini-grid project.
If you would like to read more about the learnings and outcomes of our e-mobility pilot, we have written a series of four articles that are published on the Equatorial Power website linked below.
E-mobility for fishermen on Lake Victoria – Part 1
E-mobility for fishermen on Lake Victoria – Part 2
E-mobility for fishermen on Lake Victoria – Part 3
E-mobility for fishermen on Lake Victoria – Part 4