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Writer: Onyedimmakachukwu Obiukwu, Images: Judd van Rensburg

From the Mediterranean in the north to the Indian Ocean in the south, Africa shares a common narrative of energy demand outstripping supply. While a few countries – like Algeria and Mauritius – have a better power supply, most in Africa lack enough electricity to keep the lights on at night.

Worse still, countries which have had adequate power supply are battling to keep up with rising demand. South Africa, the continent’s electricity giant, is being crippled by rolling blackouts. Ghana is now often in the dark; 600-million people in sub-Saharan Africa have no access to electricity, and the World Bank has declared an energy crisis in 32 countries of the region. But above this Africa-wide power challenge rises the enormous potential of the sun, able to meet the energy demands of the continent a thousand times over.

Africa has the world’s best potential for solar power: according to the German Aerospace Centre’s Institute of Solar Research, roughly 40% of Africa’s surface receives over 2 000 kilowatts per hour of solar energy annually. This is virtually half of the sunlight that strikes the earth’s surface.

That solar energy can be harnessed using two technologies: solar photovoltaics (PV) directly convert solar energy into electricity using semiconductors; while concentrating solar power (CSP) first turns heat from the sun’s rays into mechanical energy using turbines, which convert it to electricity.

However, much like Beta was eclipsed by VHS, “PV has won the race,” according to Juergen Reinert of SMA Solar Technology AG, one of the top suppliers of inverters to the industry. This is because CSP equipment requires high maintenance and until now was not implemented in large numbers that could drive down costs. Another issue is that CSP requires valuable water supplies for cooling and keeping the mirrors clean.”

Global consultants McKinsey & Company estimated in a 2012 report on solar power that PVs will generate between 400 and 600 Gigawatts (GW) of solar energy by 2020, much of which will serve emerging markets. “There is no theoretical limit to the amount of electricity that solar power can generate through PV plants,” says Weldon Turner, chief operating officer of leading solar energy firm Gigawatt Global. “It all depends upon the size of the plant installed. Solar can project any amount you want.”  

CSP’s potential is on a similar scale. According to the Institute of Solar Research CSP, if maximised, can generate nearly 1.5-million Terawatts (TW) of electricity annually for Africa. This is over a thousand times more than the 400GW of electricity that the International Renewable Energy Agency says Africa needs between now and 2030. “We must understand that the sun holds infinite potential,” said Imisi Osasona, an analyst for Middle East and Africa-focused renewable energy company Access Power MEA.  “The amount of solar energy reaching the earth annually, he explains, is roughly 2 500 times global annual energy consumption. “So in principle, we should never want for energy.”

Gradually, Africa is realising the immense potential of the sun. Over 25 African countries now have a grid-scale solar project (generating electricity on a scale large enough to be used or stored on the national grid) either under construction or fully operational. South Africa leads, with 593 Megawatts (MW) of PV-powered electricity connected to the national grid, and aims to have an installed capacity of 8400MW of solar power by 2030.

North African countries are also pursuing dramatically ambitious solar projects that could make the region the world’s leading solar power generator and exporter. Among others, Algeria has launched a 10-year plan to generate 3.72GW. Morocco expects solar energy to provide 38% of its electricity by 2020. Egypt is also attracting interest from solar power firms, thanks to the government’s auction of renewable energy projects and its 2020 target to generate 20% of the country’s electricity from green energy.

While not as ambitious as those in the north, some countries in West and Central Africa are also advancing in solar power. Ghana should lead the pack with a 155MW PV plant scheduled for opening back in October 2016 and with Chinese company BXC opening a 20MW plant in April last year. next year. Solar power developers have also signed deals with the Nigerian government to install PV plants; among these firms is Gigawatt Global, which plans to install up to 500MW of solar powered electricity in West Africa by 2020.

Pan African Solar will also build 500MW of solar power in the next 3 years in Nigeria with some 300MW presently under development. Putting things into perspective, the company’s director Marcus Heal says: “One in five Africans live in Nigeria. The daily power generation is about 3,000MW (3GW) and they need a minimum of 40 000MW to provide a stable supply.”

Despite this technology to harness the power of the sun, “There are no utility-size [solar power] plants in West Africa and North Africa,” Turner discloses. He adds that the current contribution of solar energy to Africa’s power supply is still not more than 1%. Although the numbers are set to quadruple in favour of solar power, many obstacles to full exploitation of the sun still remain, says Osasona. He explains that while Africa seems to have woken up to the potential of renewable energy, “Many governments are starting to find out that it takes a lot more than resource availability to set up solar power plants”. He mentions investment tenor, grid-parity, and the front-loaded nature of financing as some of the factors responsible.

Turner highlights other obstacles to solar power exploitation in Africa: “corruption, bureaucracy, financing challenges and in some places, terrorism”. He readily mentions Rwanda as an example where the absence of such hindrances helped make solar power construction swift and smooth. “Rwanda was a dream to work in relative to other countries,” he enthuses. “The government was keen on getting the project done in record time and it’s physically safe, so we didn’t have the extra cost of guarding against attacks.” Nigeria is an example of where those hindrances could interfere. Gigawatt’s business portfolio lists delays in permitting and power-purchase negotiations, unclear government processes, Nigeria’s poor credit rating and history of poor financial discipline, and the political instability and insurgency in the north (where its project is situated) as the risks it faces developing a solar power station in Nigeria.

It is also a matter of will, Osasona emphasises: the readiness of African governments to create the enabling environment and adequate infrastructure. “With the right policy frameworks in place, solar energy can be really immense for African development. There’s vast potential for both grid-scale and small-scale solar power generation. But for real change, the focus should be on grid-scale solar infrastructure. And how can you plan grid-scale in places where the grids are less than functional?

“That’s why there’s so much talk about the willingness of governments. The absence of a functional grid is a potential deal-breaker. No developer wants, after the huge task of building a power plant, to be stuck with the power it generates.”

Solar power also faces a battle for attention with the established modes of generating electricity in Africa, such as fossil fuels. Asked why the continent still prefers to dig below for electricity, Turner points to misunderstandings about the relative costs. “I think the main reason is that most countries don’t understand the actual cost of solar, and how to compare cost structures of their portfolio of energy,” he says. “They usually compare solar to their lowest-cost fuels, not the average or the predominant cost of energy.  Many countries in Africa have a large percentage of their energy from diesel, which in many cases is two to 2.5 times the cost of solar.”

“Putting it in perspective, imagine the cost of setting up a solar panel for your own house,” explains Osasona. “It will cost you an amount that would feel like an absolute bargain in 20-25 years, but you would have to pay it now. Imagine buying a petrol or diesel generator that won’t cost as much; then consider the cost of fuelling and maintenance over 25 years. It’s usually a fortune – but the fact that it’s not required upfront is more than enough to make many choose the generator option. That, in summary, is the investor’s dilemma. Investors have historically been more disposed to conventional technologies that don’t require as much upfront investment as renewables.”

Additional hurdles for solar power are near-sided economics and the lack of dynamism that is prevalent in Africa. “Renewables are freely available, have no fuel costs and offer huge environmental benefits,” Osasona says, “but they are not without peculiarities. And changing the norm has proved quite challenging. The common man will tend to favour the cheaper source of energy, which historically has been from conventional sources  – oil products – because of the many years of research that have gone into exploration and production.”

Yet solar power has a massive advantage over conventional sources, especially in the pace of its development and its environment friendliness. While installation of gas pipelines can take over 10 years, solar power stations can be built in a fraction of that time. Turner says the construction phase of an 8MW solar power project, the kind his company built in Rwanda, takes three to four months. “The most important advantage [over other sources of energy] is the speed with which a utility-size plant can be operational,” he explains. “In addition, it is clean energy – most countries do not price in the damage that’s done with fossil fuels over the short, medium and long term.”

Regardless of these challenges, the sun is rising in Africa. From 100MW in 2010, the continent is set to have at least 5GW capacity of solar-powered electricity by 2020, an average growth rate of nearly 500%. Better still, this figure only accounts for utility-scale solar projects; off-grid solar panels are already lighting up parts of rural Africa which had never had access to electricity. “The tide is fast turning,” Imisi says. “As many renewable technologies reach grid-parity [when the price of their electricity cost is the same as that of conventional technologies], attention will turn in the direction of power producers.”

“As the benefits begin to roll in, acceptance for solar plants in Africa will increase,” concludes Imisi Osasona. “Things are looking really bright.”

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South Africa leads in grid-scale solar power: as of January 2015, it had 593MW of PV-powered electricity on the national grid, with more projects in the works, among them three PV plants with combined capacity of 231MW being constructed by Enel Green Power of Italy. South Africa aims to have an installed capacity of 8400MW of solar power by 2030.

Algeria’s state-owned electricity company, Sonelgaz, has launched a 10-year solar-power plan to generate 1.22GW of electricity from PV plants and 2.5GW from CSP.

Morocco has a 2GW solar-generation target by 2020. The Moroccan Agency for Solar Energy  is building five solar power stations made up of photovoltaic (PV) and concentrated solar power (CSP) technology. By 2020, the country expects solar energy to provide 38% of its electricity demands.

Egypt is attracting interest and commitments from solar power firms thanks to the government’s auction of renewable energy projects and its 2020 target to generate 20% of the country’s electricity from green energy.

Tunisia has the most ambitious solar power project in North Africa. Renewable energy company, Nur Energie, in partnership with the government is developing the world’s first CSP solar project that will export electricity to Western Europe. The project, built on Tunisia’s side of the Sahara Desert, will generate 9-million GWh of electricity per annum. It consists of a 2.250 GW CSP power plant and a 2GW HVDC submarine cable from Tunisia to Italy. Its first electricity is expected to transmit to Europe in 2016, and will be able to power 700 000 homes.

Ghana leads West and Central Africa with a 155MW PV plant being developed by UK-based Blue Energy Group, set to be completed by October 2016. The country targets generating 10% of its energy needs from renewable sources by 2020.

Nigeria’s government has signed deals with several solar-power developers to install PV plants in the country. Among these firms is Gigawatt Global, which is building a 100MW solar plant in Nigeria. The Nigerian project is part of Gigawatt’s plans to install up to 500MW of solar-powered electricity generation in West Africa by 2020.

Senegal has several smaller-capacity projects, the largest of which is the 50MW PV power station currently being developed by French firm Tenergie.

Cameroon last year signed a memorandum of understanding with international energy firm, Joule Africa to develop 100MW of solar power. The company says the project, which will cost US$200 million, will be fully operational by 2017.  

Rwanda‘s 8.5MW PV station, developed by Gigawatt Global, gave East Africa its first commercial-scale solar power plant. The company is also building a 7.5MW station in neighbouring Burundi, and a 50MW project in Ethiopia, both still at development stages.

Uganda‘s 10MW PV solar-power project, capable of providing electricity for more than 40 000 households, will commence commercial operations by December 2015.

Mauritius is developing two solar power stations with a total capacity of 4MW, part of a government programme to generate 10 MW from photovoltaics using both PV and CSP technology.

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Over 25 African countries now have a grid-scale solar project either under construction or fully operational.

Concentrated Solar Power (CSP) solar power technology, if maximised, can generate nearly 1.5 million Terawatts (TW) of electricity annually for Africa, according to the Institute of Solar Research.

Photovoltaic (PV) solar power technology will generate between 400 and 600 Gigawatts (GW) of solar energy by 2020, Global consultants McKinsey & Company estimated in a 2012 report on solar power. This is over a thousand times more than the 400GW of electricity that the International Renewable Energy Agency says Africa needs between now and 2030.

Measures of power

1 Watt is the power emitted by one candle

1 kilowatt  (1kW) = 1 000 Watts

1 Megawatt (1MW) = 1 million Watts

1 Gigawatt (1GW) = 1 billion Watts

1 Terawatt (1TW) = 1000 billion Watts

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In one hour, a candle will burn 1 Watt/hour (1Wh) of energy.

Watts measure power capacity, while Kilowatt hours are a measure of energy actually used or produced. We’ll risk an analogy: think of an engine’s three-litre capacity vs. three litres of fuel consumed per hour. A 10GW power station can produce up to 10GW of power at any time; the average Moroccan used 826kWh of electricity in 2011.

 

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