Green Bitcoin Mining: A game changer for mini-grids in Africa?

Achieving universal energy access is a mammoth task which requires continuous innovation by mini-grid companies regarding technology and business models. The largest challenge to be addressed by innovation is the demand risk. Electricity demand development over time depends substantially on factors like “level of entrepreneurship” and “access to capital from family and friends”, which can simply not be assessed prior to electrification. This is the main reason why renewable energy mini-grids are usually over-sized with a capacity that covers any demand potentially developing over time. In addition, e.g. solar-battery mini-grids are designed to cover the demand during rainy seasons resulting in over-capacity during dry season. Mini-grids usually have surplus energy of 20% to 80% of the energy generation capacity.

It is in line with the above that SustainSolar and Earth Wind and Power, a Norwegian company and leading innovator in creating a sustainable bridge between excess energy and the exponentially growing demand for green computing power, signed a Letter of Intent in September 2021 to conduct a pilot study with the aim of improving energy utilisation by turning excess energy from SustainSolar’s off-grid solar installations into green computing power.

Soon thereafter, INENSUS GmbH, a German consulting and engineering firm with a focus on rural electrification joined the team which embarked on the task of demonstrating the viability of bitcoin mining with excess renewable energy in mini-grids. The pilot aims to prove that Bitcoin mining from unused renewable electricity in rural Africa can generate additional revenue for mini-grid and off-grid C&I solar operators across the continent, mitigating the demand risk.

INENSUS is currently piloting its KeyMaker Model in Uganda through its joint venture company Volt-Terra Farm and Energy Solutions Limited, to demonstrate the successful integration of the electricity generation from a mini-grid with local processing and development of local value chains like vanilla and bird’s eye chili (BEC). This pilot is located in Nsambya village, Kayunga district in Uganda and will benefit 174 households, local businesses, primary school, church and mosque through supply of clean energy.

By design, SustainSolar’s rugged containerised off-grid solar systems are ideally suited to house additional technology solutions like data processors. For this pilot application, Earth Wind and Power’s technical expertise enabled a container to be modified with a separate ventilated compartment, for safe keeping of the miner and to provide optimised airflow in order to dissipate the heat build-up from the data processing operation. Additionally, the same 3G internet connection that provides communication for remote monitoring of the solar and battery management system (BMS), also provides the miners’ connectivity with a bitcoin mining pool.

In a first of its kind project, SustainSolar designed, engineered, and delivered the containerised SUSTAIN EXTENDEDTM solar plant, equipped with 60 kWp PV array and 148 kWh of lithium-ion battery storage to the Kayunga district. The system will generate electricity to process high value agricultural crops such as vanilla and BEC in rural Uganda; and yield much socio-economic benefits for the surrounding farming community.

The system’s capacity can handle higher demand than the current expected loads as the uptake from the community is still expected to grow, SustainSolar, Earth Wind and Power and INENSUS saw the opportunity to use what would have been otherwise wasted energy to support crypto mining and in the process generate an additional stream of revenue in form of the leading digital currency – bitcoin. Bitcoin mining only requires the correct hardware, electricity, as well as a stable internet connection. For this pilot project, three second-life ASIC (Application-Specific Integrated Circuit) computers, also known as “miners”, were used, lowering capex for the system while recycling otherwise soon-to-be electronic waste. The pilot was supported with hardware, technical expertise and financing by Earth Wind and Power, who support the initiative to generate positive impact with second-hand data processing hardware.

The crypto industry has received significant backlash in recent years for the combination of its high power requirements, and fossil fuel consumption. This pilot was the perfect opportunity to demonstrate that crypto currency mining can be sustainable and create economic value for mini-grids across the continent.

Founded in 2018, SustainSolar offers turnkey containerized, pre-installed solar PV and battery energy storage systems (BESS) equipped with top-quality solar PV electronics including lithium-ion batteries which come in standardized yet adjustable product configurations from small to large to suit a wide range of energy needs. With its commitment to quality, a rapidly growing track record on the African continent, and an expanding network of local partners, SustainSolar is a preferred solution provider for mini-grid operators, off-grid and hybrid fuel saving applications. SustainSolar strives to reduce implementation risk for project developers, alleviates operational hassles such as sourcing, logistics and commissioning and offers asset financing for its product range.