The sun shines on Africa


Research suggests that by tapping into renewable resources, there would be a 27% reduction in carbon emissions, from 695 Mt/y in 2016 to 507 Mt/y by 2040, and a reduction in fuel costs due to the reliance on solar (and wind) instead of oil and gas.


Dinesh Buldoo

While there are a host of renewable energy technologies being explored and developed, solar provides significant potential to light up the continent, considering the high irradiation levels the the continent receives. The World Sunshine Map highlights that Africa receives, on average, more hours of sunshine than any other continent on Earth, creating huge potential for solar power.

At utility scale, it is the technology’s ability to bring much needed power to the grid quickly that is proving to be one of the biggest advantages of this renewable energy technology.

Developments in the field continue to improve the overall efficiencies of these power stations, adding to their appeal to African energy policy-makers and their professional teams. Solar photovoltaic (PV) solutions will continue to play an important role in energising remote and outlying areas which have limited grid access.

In many instances, where it would be uneconomical to connect these areas to centralised energy plants via the national grid, solar-based technologies can be deployed close to the source of demand.

Solar PV offerings are under constant development in order to improve efficiency. Concentrated photovoltaic (CPV) technologies, for example, aim to focus sunlight onto smaller, highly efficient solar cells through the utilisation of tracker systems. There is also a drive for the development of low-cost solar cells with increased efficiencies which are able to generate power from a broader solar wavelength spectrum.

These and other new innovations in the field of solar technologies, could represent a major leap forward for renewable energy in Africa, where many communities still reside in underdeveloped, remote areas with minimal access to power.

However, other forms of power for base-load are still essential to the energy mix of any developing country that relies on energy intensive industries such as mining or manufacturing to grow their economy. South Africa is a prime example of the duality of the opportunity, where solar energy farms play an invaluable role in bringing energy to the grid while work forges ahead on two large coal-fired power stations, as well as a peaking power plant.

Looking further north, the growing number of solar projects in countries such as Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, Mali, Gambia, Kenya and Zambia – as well as a proposed project in Burkina Faso – demonstrate the continent’s growing interest in solar power.

As many countries in Africa continue to grapple with getting their power supply to match demand levels, it is also interesting to note that the continent is following an international trend, in terms of decoupling buildings from national grids, with solar being a major driver of this movement.

Progressing beyond being a mere back-up power solution combined with complex diesel generator systems, roof-top solar projects are helping to alleviate already constrained grid networks on the continent. Developments in countries such as South Africa and Kenya point to a future consisting of sophisticated flexible grid networks. Here, large base-load projects are complemented by systems which bring power directly to the consumer without the need for investing in long transmission lines.

However, there is still much to be done to bolster African distribution infrastructure at municipal level to the point where it is ready to receive these technologies at a larger scale.

Yet, like its utility-scale counterparts, innovations in storage technologies and PV modules, as well as the declining cost of solar systems, has seen solar power become an essential part of the green building revolution on the continent. Enterprising property developers are increasingly insisting on solar power as critical components of their property assets, complementing their already robust energy efficiency initiatives geared at mitigating their load on the grid.

Although mega-projects will remain a top priority on the continent, solar power offers immense and unique opportunities to narrow the divide between energy rollout and access to energy. It can be more easily deployed in areas which are remote and underdeveloped, but also has the potential to alleviate some of the burdens associated with delivering much-needed base-load power into national grids.

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