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OPINION: Harnessing the power of solar for development in Africa

By , ITWeb
09 Mar 2016

OPINION: Harnessing the power of solar for development in Africa

Did you know that two out of three people in Africa live without electricity? Solar may be the answer to quickly changing that picture. This is because over the last decade, the cost of installed solar energy generation has decreased dramatically, but also because photovoltaic solar or PV can be installed anywhere the sun can reach.

PV is thus extremely apt for distributed applications such as roofs, street lamps, and mobile applications. Solar power requires only a few simple components, and can quickly be up and providing much needed electricity at the point where it is needed. This is why PV solar, much like mobile telephone penetration before it, is quickly becoming a viable solution for Africans of all kinds.

When it comes to the development of the lives of the excluded, renewable energy growth in Africa is growing in leaps and bounds, and allowing people who previously had limited access to reliable, affordable, safe energy to change their lives.

Renewable energy has become a buzzword in regards to power generation in Africa, but it will not quickly overcome fossil fuels as the main source of power. That said, it is important that the future includes increasing solar power and other renewables as Africa sustainably and gradually shifts towards efficient and affordable power for all of its people.

As African economies grow, we already see a corresponding rise in energy demand across the continent, often beyond what the current power sources can supply. The effects of this reality have already been felt in the two biggest economies, Nigeria and South Africa; which are forced to consume large amounts of diesel as backup when there are power shortages on the grid – or to go without power altogether in such cases.

Adding new electricity production by non-renewable means is costly for governments in Africa, and there are immense challenges in any case to transport power across such a huge geographical area.

At the same time, Africa boasts excellent irradiance (available sun energy) as well as abundant land on which to set up solar energy infrastructure. As costs come down, more and more African people, businesses, and governments are coming around to realise that solar changes the paradigm of how to get reliable and cost effective power that in turn will only speed the progress already taking place.

Further investment from the private sector coupled by government funding and supportive legislation is key to enabling this push forward into solar, and ensuring a fully powered Africa in the near future.

Growth prediction

In their "Brighter Africa" report, McKinsey & Company forecast some major megatrends for sub-Saharan Africa. By 2040, the population will double for 2010, and the GDP will see a five-fold increase. This in turn will require that power consumption that is four times greater in just 30 years than the estimated 400 TWh currently being consumed.

African governments have not been sitting still or ignoring renewables. The South African government has lead the way with the highly innovative REIPP Procurement program. This program in just 3 rounds of bidding has allowed a tremendous growth in renewable energy, all the while cutting the costs by a factor of over 3.

The independent agency Council for Scientific and Industrial Research had already reported a conservative estimate by early 2015 that this program had actual saved the country almost $1-billion.

Governments in many of the other countries have also been implementing their first major renewable projects. Examples of this are wind farms in Ethiopia and Kenya, and major solar announcements in first projects in Nigeria and many other countries.

As an example of Africa's leading innovation, the Kenyan government recently announced an investment partnership with the private sector in a bid to generate over 50% of its electricity from solar. Not to be outdone, Rwanda also announced the opening of East Africa's largest solar power plant.

South Africa's Transport Minister, Dipuo Peters, also announced the launch of Africa's first solar powered airport in George in February 2016 which consists of a 200 square metre clean energy source designed to supply the airport with 750kw of its total electricity needs.

Commercial and private individuals are also now investing in solar as a way to offset or eliminate diesel backup costs in applications ranging from mining to small commercial enterprises.

Perhaps most encouraging are the growing "micro solar" penetration in countries like Kenya, where for less cost than kerosene, hundreds of thousands of small homes are able to have lights, power for computers and phone charging, and radio / TV's. Such systems often are paid off in less than a year, after which the user has more disposable income to invest in more solar.

Furthermore, this alleviates the safety and logistic problems associated with kerosene for lighting. This is an example of how the demand for electricity is outpacing supply across Africa, because as mentioned above, serious challenges exist to build new power stations, but even more to build a transmission network to rural areas.

Not without challenges

Solar power is not without challenges, especially as it disrupts what till now has been a very simple, if not very efficient model of power produced then transmitted over long distances, then distributed to individuals and businesses. Solar changes this flow to multi-directional, and also can impact current business models for power producers. Also, grid operators must manage the supply which now fluctuates. While demand has also always fluctuated, the speed to have solar in place presents challenges to grid operators that are not negligible.

Fortunately, solar power is quite predictable and controllable. With proper rate schemes and regulations, it is possible to grow rapidly the amount of power available, while maintaining a steady grid. Germany, the leader in installed renewables power, only experiences a few minutes of power outages a year! Furthermore, energy storage prices are now also dropping rapidly, and many users are already combining solar plus storage to ensure that most if now all locally produced solar is also consumed at source.

It is clear that Africa is going to see a rapid growth in the deployment of solar power. This form of energy is a viable option that can be deployed in the most remote of regions, where most of the population lives.

Solar power has been shown to produce strong job growth wherever it has been deployed, and this is something that will also benefit African entrepreneurs. Solar is not without challenges, and it will take time to go through the learning curve, to train people technically, and to understand how a distributed energy source can co-exist with the current central power production model.

Still, the benefit of focusing on solar power from both a private and public standpoint far outweighs any potential negatives. As renewable energy continues to fill an unmet demand here on the continent, solar is uniquely poised to play a key role in enabling the growth and prosperity Africa so richly deserves.

* By Louis Shaffer, Distributed Energy Segment Manager, EMEA Eaton

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