Turning to Off-grid solar power supply

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Almost half of the people in the world without access to electricity live in Africa and the vast number of them live in the rural areas where access to on-grid solar power supply has been slow in coming owing to the colossal investments needed to put up transmission lines though even if this were done the energy deficiency currently facing the continent would still make this a fruitless undertaking.

This offers a unique opportunity for off-grid solar units to be availed in these remote areas enabling communities to benefit from the many advantages of having access to electricity bearing in mind that Africa is a continent blessed with vast quantities of sunlight throughout the year,

Whether it is a simple solar lantern, a small household system or a larger system able to power a hospital’s needs the changes in the lives of the people are nothing less than revolutionary. Take for instance the availability of solar lighting.

This alone helps communities to cut down on the use of kerosene or candles that are far costlier than what higher income communities in urban settings spend on the same utility yet those using the lanterns have far less income hence immediately there are cost benefits to be realized. In addition the use of solar lighting increases the productive hours available allowing income generating activities to continue for longer hours while also enabling students to read for longer hours as well.

Providing refrigeration for medicines and for powering healthcare equipment are just some of the health benefits derived by providing electrical power along with eliminating the emissions from candles and kerosene that contribute to carbon emissions into the atmosphere.

In addition to all this, the beauty of solar is its scalability that allows customers to upgrade with time from solar lanterns to large systems that can power more home appliances. However as one scales up to larger systems it is essential that one gets proper maintenance service locally.


Several governments in Africa have come to realize the advantages that tapping solar energy has in enabling them to meet their development goals targeted at the eradication of poverty. As solar PV product costs fall and technologies are developed that offer greater efficiencies solar could turn out to be the revolution in energy supply in Africa in a similar way that the mobile phone is for communication. They both offer significant savings by helping Africa leap frog forward without having to rely on first constructing costly infrastructure consisting of power lines and power generating stations.

Getting Policy right

Setting up policy frameworks is key in order to remove uncertainly and ambiguity in the sector. Creating consumer awareness is also imperative as is the need to ensure proper regulation in order to avoid dumping of sub-standard products into the markets that would harm consumer trust. As in all businesses there is also the need to develop the provision of financing of the sector right through the value chain so as to spur growth and uptake. Tax incentives and removal of barriers to the importation of solar products should also be considered while providing training in order to develop skilled manpower in the sector.

One country that has made great strides in the development of solar energy is South Africa which before 2010 had no significant solar installations but due to a more proactive institutional stance, the country now aims to produce 9,600MW of solar power by 2030. Currently about 1GW of solar power is fed into the national grid making it one of the top 10 global solar power producers.

In 2014 alone the country brought online the 22MW Herbert1 project the 50MW De Aaar Project and the 44MW Touwsrivier project and the 96MW Jasper Solar power plant.

The key to South Africa’s success was the government’s commitment which saw the formation of the Independent Power Producers (IPP) office and a related programme that ensured that Eskom the local energy utility purchased the energy produced by the IPP’s supported by government guarantees. This system needs to be emulated across Africa so that this private public partnership can help accelerate the development of solar power plants across the continent.

The cost of solar installations has seen a steady decline in the last 10 years due in part to the reduction of the cost of solar modules however government tax incentives have also played a major role spurred by commitments made by countries at the UN climate accord in Paris last year in which agreements were made to cut carbon dioxide and other green house gas emissions that are associated with fossil fuels such as oil and coal.
In Africa the use of solar power has become necessary because it is quicker and less costly to setup in remote areas where no grid lines exist and offers the added advantage of being scalable
The dramatic fall in the cost of PV has occurred as the industry has scaled up manufacturing and incrementally improved the technology with new materials. Installation costs have come down too with more experienced and trained installers entering the market.

During the Powering Africa Summit in Washington DC last year, the World Bank launched the Scaling Solar programmewhich aims to create a viable market for private solar power projects in Africa that will help governments increase the supply of energy for millions of residential and commercial consumers across the continent.

Under the programme, large-scale photovoltaic solar power can be quickly and economically developed to increase the supply of electricity to national grids and improve the reliability of power services for households and businesses. Scaling Solar provides a straightforward package to help countries determine the size and location of projects, then auction them competitively to developers. The initiative combines World Bank guarantees, MIGA’s investment guarantees, and IFC financing to mobilize privately funded solar projects that are connected to the grid. A simplified process and suite of contract templates significantly speeds this process to enable initial electricity production to begin within two years of initiating an engagement.
On the more micro scale one solar company in East Africa is providing solar to many rural households at 35 dollars upfront and a further 50 cents per day for one year
Recently the company closed a $19 million financing round led by Generation Investment Management, and revealed plans to reach one million homes in East Africa by the end of 2017. It already reaches 275,000 homes. Yet, M-Kopa’s key innovation is using the mobile phone to show how solar energy can be marketed at scale in Africa.

According to Gilles Cattin, Director Sales Management IFS of Business Unit PV SCHMID Group, it is important to secure PPAs (Power Purchase Agreement) from local states or investors in solar farms. Gilles added that one needs to have reliable installers who will provide maintenance and after sales services.
SCHMID Group BU PV is an Equipment Manufacturing Company which provides turn-key production lines from wafer to module. They are undertaking a turn-key line of 500 MW capacity in South Africa.
Product innovations

Most solar units convert about 23 percent of sunlight to electricity. This is low and offers more scope for technological development in order to increase efficiency and storage.

Mr Ruan van Rooyen of Lumax a South African company that is a primary distributor of Renusol solar mounting systems in Southern Africa concedes that solar power is an effective, sustainable energy solution that addresses a market currently nearly untapped in Africa. However he points out that there are challenges in logistics and post installation security of the installed assets

In the storage department on the other hand, most batteries are made from either crystalline silicon or thin-film semiconductor material. Silicon cells are more efficient at converting sunlight to electricity, but generally have higher manufacturing costs. Thin-film materials typically have lower efficiencies, but can be simpler and less costly to manufacture. At the high end are called multi-junction or tandem cells which are used in applications requiring very low weight and very high efficiencies, such as satellites and military applications.

Ultimately what urban users want is to get off the grid completely but this won’t happen soon but what is apparent is that solar energy consumers are still on the grid but use it for backup. In the future however judging by current trends technological advances will continue to offer ever more attractive products to consumers making the dream more of a reality.