Africa looks to so­lar for peo­ple off the grid

Lesotho Times - - Africa -

DAKAR — Above the sacks of seeds and coal, three kerosene lamps gather dust in the tiny shed that Kenyan chicken farmer Bernard calls home.

He prefers to use so­lar en­ergy to light up his evenings, lis­ten to the ra­dio or watch tele­vi­sion, af­ter aban­don­ing a diesel gen­er­a­tor he said was ex­pen­sive to main­tain and burned fuel too quickly.

“So­lar pan­els are a good, cheap so­lu­tion,” he told AFP.

Across the con­ti­nent, con­sumers are opt­ing for their own off-grid so­lar so­lu­tions to power homes and small busi­nesses, even as African govern­ments un­veil mas­sive new so­lar projects seem­ingly ev­ery month to ex­pand their grids.

Ac­cord­ing to In­ter­na­tional En­ergy Agency pro­jec­tions, almost one bil­lion peo­ple in sub-sa­ha­ran Africa will gain ac­cess to the grid by 2040, but by that time 530 mil­lion will re­main off-grid, almost com­pa­ra­ble with the 600 mil­lion who can­not ac­cess power today.

Govern­ments have ramped up their ef­forts: on Africa’s At­lantic coast, Sene­gal last month in­au­gu­rated a mas­sive 20 megawatt (MW) project that will de­liver en­ergy to 160,000 peo­ple, which Pres­i­dent Macky Sall saluted as ush­er­ing in “a new, clean-en­ergy era”.

But Mouhamadou Makhtar Cisse, di­rec­tor-gen­eral of na­tional util­ity Sen­elec, un­der­lined up­com­ing prob­lems in an in­ter­view with AFP.

“We ac­tu­ally have an ex­cess of 100MW of power,” he said. “But we have a dis­tri­bu­tion prob­lem. We have been think­ing in terms of roads and rail­ways... but not about elec­tric­ity high­ways.”

With around 55 to 65 per­cent of homes re­ceiv­ing elec­tric­ity, Sene­gal’s grid strength is above av­er­age for sub-sa­ha­ran Africa, whereas in South Su­dan and Liberia this hov­ers be­tween one and two per­cent.

But even in Sene­gal, neigh­bour­ing Mau­ri­ta­nia and Rwanda, which have all in­vested in large-scale so­lar projects as the cost of pan­els tumble, the twin chal­lenges of lim­ited grids and Africa’s de­mo­graph­ics re­main.

‘Space for in­no­va­tion’ “The grid and the off-grid are so far apart right now that it’s cre­at­ing a huge space for in­no­va­tion,” en­thuses An­drew Her­scowitz, co­or­di­na­tor for US Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s Power Africa ini­tia­tive.

Power Africa, which iden­ti­fies govern­ments and busi­nesses re­quir­ing sus­tain­able and af­ford­able en­ergy and of­fers fund­ing and ex­per­tise in more than 15 coun­tries, has taken a par­tic­u­lar in­ter­est in so­lar.

Power Africa is push­ing this re­new­able source so that peo­ple “don’t have to wait for the grid to ar­rive to them, they can ac­cess a com­pany today and have a so­lar panel put on their roof,” Her­scowitz told AFP.

Half of sub-sa­ha­ran Africa’s power is gen­er­ated in South Africa, while north Africa has built ef­fec­tive grid sys­tems that largely serve their pop­u­la­tions with a con­stant flow of en­ergy.

But for the rest, off-grid sys­tems and the tech­nol­ogy needed to make them reach­able to the sub-con­ti­nent’s poor­est homes have reached a tip­ping point in the last five years, spurred by ad­vances that have low­ered costs.

Light­ing homes with kerosene and can­dles re­mains ex­pen­sive, dan­ger­ous and pol­lut­ing, but in Kenya mi­cro-so­lar firms have brought power to 30 per­cent of the off-grid pop­u­la­tion.

“A per­son can for the same amount of money they were spend­ing to buy kerosene just for that lit­tle flicker of light… use that money to buy a small so­lar panel that can power safe light­bulbs,” Her­scowitz said.

Si­mon Brans­field-garth, CEO of Bri­tish “pay-as-you-go” so­lar panel firm Azuri, noted that the cost per kilo­watt hour for elec­tric­ity in the West was around 15 US cents, while kerosene was 53 times higher and can­dles 105 times higher on av­er­age for African con­sumers.

Azuri and ri­val M-kopa of­fer a pack­age of so­lar-pow­ered light­bulbs, ra­dio, and phone charg­ing ports for as lit­tle as 50 US cents a day.

So­lar-pow­ered tele­vi­sions are avail­able for a lit­tle more and fridges are ex­pected to fol­low.

The firms have made their mark in Kenya, Tan­za­nia, Uganda and Ghana, which also have the heav­i­est up­take of mo­bile money sys­tems, al­low­ing users to pay for these ser­vices au­to­mat­i­cally through cheap and easy-to-ac­cess bank ac­counts pro­vided by tele­coms firms.

In these mar­kets, cus­tomers are of­ten so sparsely dis­trib­uted that even if they have the op­por­tu­nity to con­nect to the grid, do­ing so is still of­ten more ex­pen­sive than so­lar packs.

Sun­shine con­ti­nent In­vest­ment in the sun to feed Africa’s grids is ap­pre­cia­ble: by the end of 2014 out­put stood at 1,334 MW, more than ten times larger than in 2009 (127 MW), ac­cord­ing to the In­ter­na­tional Re­new­able En­ergy Agency (IRENA).

As con­sul­tancy firm KPMG put it in a re­cent re­port, so­lar power is “the most widely avail­able source of re­new­able en­ergy in Africa”, and could “bring en­ergy to vir­tu­ally any lo­ca­tion in Africa with­out the need for ex­pen­sive large-scale grid level in­fras­truc­tural de­vel­op­ments.”

The up­take of so­lar still re­mains ex­tremely low com­pared to coal and biomass, ac­count­ing for less than five per­cent of over­all grid power, but so­lar is get­ting cheaper and eas­ier to in­stall than ever.

Be­sides, most off-grid com­mu­ni­ties have no other op­tion, as Africa Power’s Her­scowitz noted: “the amount of money needed to solve the en­ergy deficit in Africa is hun­dreds of bil­lions of dol­lars. No gov­ern­ment has that money.” — AFP

Sene­gal now has an ex­cess of power, though it still has a dis­tri­bu­tion prob­lem.

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