a continent with the highest concentration of sunlight, one would expect Africa to be on the driving seat of Solar Power technology. The opposite is the case. South Africa is the only country in the continent currently with a solar power station of more than 50 megawatts. Not only does the US state of California have more solar power stations than the whole of Africa, its installed solar capacity is nearly the size of all of West Africa’s total power generating capacity.
According to the DLR, Germany’s national aeronautics and space research centre, Africa has the best potential for solar energy developments. The agency cites the continent’s DNI as proof of this in its report for SolarPaces 2009. Known as direct normal irradiation or Direct Solar Irradiance, the DNI is used to assess a region’s potential for generating energy through photovoltaics or concentrating solar power (CSP). “It is that portion of sunlight that directly strikes the Earth’s surface after absorption and scattering losses in the atmosphere, and is measured in kilowatt-hours per square meter per year (kWh/m²/y),” says new-energy firm Greenbang.
The DLR calculated how much open land in each region receives incoming solar energy of more than 2,000 kWh/m²/y, and the result was stunning. Africa receives around 49 percent of the world’s solar energy, more than double of that of Australia—the second highest receiver. “The sun holds infinite potential,” Imisi Osasona, an analyst with leading Renewable Energy Company, Access Power MEA, told me. “The amount of solar energy reaching the earth annually is about 1 million ExaJoule (EJ) compared to the global annual energy consumption of a measly 400 EJ. So, in principle, we should never want for energy.”
But principle is very distant from reality in Africa. Over 600 million people in sub-Saharan Africa, more than 65 percent of the region, still do not have access to electricity. The annual electricity consumption of the region is less than 1000KWh, very poor when compared to its solar power potential of up to 1.5 million TWh a year.And for a continent that is the world’s new investment frontier, our meagre 143 Gigawatt (GW) total installed power capacity is a far cry from the 400(GW) of electricity that the International Renewable Energy Agency says Africa needs to drive development. Given that the sun can fill this power gap a thousand times over, why are we still hiding under it?
Weldon Turner, the Chief Operating Officer of solar energy firm, Gigawatt Global, told me part of the problem comes from the lack of understanding of solar energy. “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. They usually compare solar to their lowest cost fuels and not the average or the predominant cost of energy.”
The cost of the predominant energy– fossil fuel–has chewed off large chunks of the economies of African countries. 80 percent of the Africa’s electricity is generated from fossil fuels, and because of the high cost of generation and the low-income of majority of the consumers in the continent, governments are forced to institute subsidies. But these massive payments for the people is now sapping state revenues and plaguing African economies with deficit and debt. With nearly 70 percent its electricity coming from gas, Egypt is an example of this problem. The North African country spent US$2 billion on electricity subsidies in 2013/2014, among the several subsidies that has seen it accumulate nearly 10 percent in budget deficit. To shed the unbearable burden, the country this year, began a yearly increase of electricity tariffs, ranging up to a 50 percent rise for households. While Egypt raise bills to meet the high cost of fossil-fuel generated power, the cost of solar generated electricity has been drastically falling. The unsubsidised tariff for solar power consumers in US and Europe is now around $0.08/kWh, lower than the lowest –still heavily subsidised—household tariff in Egypt, which is $0.11/kWh, and the the average tariff in sub-Saharan Africa, which is $0.13/kWh. Thus, not only will solar power remove the burden of subsidies in African economies, it will also reduce the price for final consumers.
I asked Osasona how African countries could harness this immense potential of the sun, and he pointed to policy and commitment. “With the right policy frameworks in place, solar energy can be really immense for African development,” he said. There’s vast potential for both grid-scale and small-scale (distributed or off-grid, for isolated areas) solar power generation. But, to make really sizable impact, 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 energy developers like Osasona’s Access Power MEA and Turner’s Gigawatt Global are leading the change of narrative in Africa’s solar energy. In February, Gigawatt launched East Africa’s first operational solar plant in Rwanda; an 8.5MW photovoltaic station. Access Power is developing of a 10MW PV station in Uganda. However, both industry leaders told me that the drive for renewable power drive is facing large potholes. “All the major structural challenges in Africa for everything else are present in solar development; corruption, bureaucracy, financing challenges, and in some places, terrorism,” Turner said. But he was quick to point out Rwanda as different, and an example for other countries to follow. “Rwanda was a dream to work in, relative to other countries. There was no corruption, 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 again attacks.” Osasona Says another challenge is the lack of dynamism which dominates the economies of many African states. “That tide is now turning,” he enthused, pointing to the evolution of many renewable technologies and the growing realisation of the role they can play in solving the continent’s power issue.
The tide is indeed turning for solar power in Africa. Over 20 countries in the continent now have solar power projects, although most are in contract and early construction stage. Eleven countries in West and Central Africa have ongoing solar projects, Six in East Africa, four in North Africa, and South Africa the only country in the south. By the end of this year Ghana will have the single largest solar plant in the continent; a 105MW photovoltaic station. South Africa, currently plagued by a power crisis, is also boosting its solar base. The country has partnered Italian firm Enel Green Power (EGP), to construct three solar photovoltaic (PV) plants with a total capacity of 231MW, capable of powering more than 100,000 homes. Nigeria, Africa’s largest economy, has also attracted several solar energy developers. Among them Gigawatt Global, which is building a 100MW PV station in the north, and Motir Seaspire, a US investment consortium which signed an MoU with the Nigerian government to deliver up to 1,200MW of solar-powered electricity in the country by 2017. The most ambitious solar project is in Tunisia, where Nur Energie is developing a 2.250GW solar power plant that will generate up to 9 million GWh per year.
Despite this great first step, Africa is still far behind in the journey to solar power, as our eyes still fixed on conventional energy sources. Energy investments in the continent are still overtly focused on fossil fuel, exemplified by Nigeria’s massive investments in gas-fired power plants. In Solar and renewable energy, the government and investor attention is relatively very poor; apart from South Africa, no country in the Sub-Saharan Africa has renewable energy projects worth up to $1 billion dollars. Given power struggles in South Africa and Ghana, both of whom depend on finite sources such as coal and gas for electricity, it is time for the attention in the continent to shift its energy focus to the sun that never stops shining on us.