Africa’s abundant resource Harnessing the sun’s energy

Rwanda Gigawatt Project Drone Gigawatt Project Rwanda Drone

The world today is more conscious of the need to conserve the environment and to shift from a dependence on fossil fuels for its energy needs. Several conferences in the past have extolled the virtues of the use of renewable sources of energy and the theme has begun to gain traction with solar power installations beginning to grow at a fast pace even in Africa where last year alone a record US$8b was invested in renewable energy sources on the continent.

One of the disappointing facts however is that statistics indicate that of the top 10 countries using solar power in the world none are in Africa. The list is topped by Germany with an installed capacity of 35GW among other countries such as China, Italy, Japan, USA, Spain, France, Australia, Belgium and UK. Africa doesn’t even feature in the top 20, this is despite the fact that solar energy is available in abundance, the cost of photovoltaic cells is dropping  and the huge energy deficit in the continent is colossal. In addition HEP which has been for decades the preferred renewable resource has become unreliable as persist droughts have left dams empty.

Load shedding across the continent has had dire consequences. The lack of adequate electricity hampers gainful economic activity and the generation of wealth. This fact is backed by a report by the Africa Progress Panel which estimated that 138 million families living on US$2.50 a day spend annually US$10b on energy related products such as paraffin and candles. Looked at another way that person in rural Africa without electricity pays 60 to 80 times more on energy than a person living in London.

It is estimated that over  half a billion people in Africa lack access to electricity which retards development in health, education and economic activity, not to mention the impact on the environment due to the use of charcoal and firewood as alternative sources. The picture is not as gloomy as it may seem however because investment in solar and other renewable is increasing, the bulk of which not surprisingly was focused on South Africa with other countries making great strides in solar project installations being Rwanda Mauritania and Morocco. The more general picture shows that countries in Africa are at various stages of setting up regulatory structures for Independent Power Producers(IPPs) or have at least announced targets for renewable energy.

Largest solar complex in Africa

South Africa has attracted the bulk of the investment directed towards renewables in Africa. One notable project is the Xina Solar One project under development by Abengoa Solar at a cost of US$1b. The project will consist of a concentrating solar power (CSP) plant which is being built and operated by Abengoa. A concentrating solar power plant uses many mirrors running into the hundreds of thousands, to reflect sunlight on a trough of liquid which is heated and used to drive a generator. The 100 MW plant will not only produce clean energy it will also be able to store energy for upto 5 hours after the sun goes down by using molten salt thermal energy storage technology. This technology will allow the plant to operate 24/7, providing baseload power for both on-grid and off-grid applications. Xina One is expected to be completed in 2017 and is being built alongside another Abegnoa project, the 100MW Kaxu Solar One CSP plant. Together the two plants represent the largest solar energy complex on the continent. The plant will be located near the town of Pofadder in South Africa’s Northern Cape Province.

In East Africa the first utility scale solar project came online in Rwanda early this year. The US$23.7m Gigatt Global project generates 8.5MW of energy, enough to power 15,000 homes and is a grid-connected solar PV plant. Gigawatt Global is one of almost 90 private sector partners involved in the U.S. Government’s Power Africa Initiative, which is designed to increase access to electricity throughout all of sub-Saharan Africa.

Africa’s largest PV power plant

PV plants enjoy the advantage over CSP plants of being cheaper as costs have fallen dramatically in the past few years. Even Google which had initially supported CSP plants withdrew its support in favor of PV in its renewable energy investment.  In West Africa Ghana is determined to construct  Africa’s largest PV power plant. The Nzema plant will generate 155MW of energy and boost the country’s generating capacity by 6 percent. The project is being undertaken by UK based Blue Energy at a cost of US$350m and will include 630,000 solar modules. To attest to the investor thirst to enter the energy supply arena, the government was so overwhelmed by the number of applications for the development of solar power projects in the country that it set a cap of 20MW due to grid capacity concerns.

In North Africa Egypt has taken aggressive steps towards mitigating the effects of a high energy deficit and low gas reserves that power its fossil fuel power plants. The government has set a target of having 20 percent of its electricity needs supplied by renewables by 2022 a very lofty goal that will need to attract US$12bn to install the 8GW of solar PV that will be required. On track so far is the construction of a 250MW solar plant by Building Energy (BE). Construction is set to start next year with the company constructing 50MW PV plants in Benbab Upper Egypt at a cost of US$200m. Morocco meanwhile is moving along with the Noor Ouarzazate CSP complex whose first phase is set for completion this year and will produce 160MW with a further 350MW to be completed in phase II in 2017. The country has set a target to install 2000MW of solar power by 2020.

Why Solar?

Perhaps one of the strongest obstacles to the use of solar is the cost of installation which is considered high, however it must be pointed out that this has been coming down. A good example of this is seen in South Africa’s Renewable Energy independent power producer program, REIPPP where in the case of PV projects, the average bidding tariff dropped 68 % between round 1 and round 3. The REIPPP was established in 2011, with a target of installing 3.7 GW of renewable energy generation capacity over the next few years.

Solar has the benefit of working both on-grid and off-grid. This is particularly useful in remote areas wher a solar plant can be sent up to supply off-grid power. In addition, scalability means that capacity can be increased in tandem with demand in these remote areas.

Africa is blessed with sunlight all year round which means tapping solar power holds huge potential for energy generation unlike HEP which has become unreliable due to intermittent rains that result in dams running below capacity due to low water levels. On the other hand when considered against thermal power the World Bank notes solar PV can already deliver power at less than 15US¢/kWh with long-term price certainty in Africa compared to diesel-fired power that costs more than 25US¢/kWh and is subject to global oil price volatility.

A McKinsey report makes clear, financing will be key to the success of solar power growth in Africa but favourable policy frames works will need to be put in place so as not to hinder private investment in the sector.

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