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Solar Energy Africa’s biggest opportunity for sustainable power (Part 1)

While a few countries have a better power supply, most in Africa lack enough electricity to keep the lights on at night.

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(Judd van Rensburg)

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Written by Onyedimmakachukwu Obiukwu

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.

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.”

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