Solar Energy Africa’s biggest opportunity for sustainable power (Part 2)

Solar power faces a battle for attention with the established modes of generating electricity in Africa, such as fossil fuels.

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Africa play

Africa

(Judd van Rensburg)
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Written by Onyedimmakachukwu Obiukwu

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."

Sidebar

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

And Kilowatt hours?

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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