Africa awash in sunlight, but not solar energy

Mail and Guardian – PARIS, FRANCE Sep 28 2008 07:09

From household solar panels to thermal generators big enough to power a town, sun power has enjoyed explosive growth around the world.

Everywhere, that is, except on the sun-drenched continent of Africa.

With an average daily dose of five-to-seven kilowatt hours (kWh) for every square metre, Africa has more potential for producing energy from the sun than almost anywhere on Earth, with the possible exception of northern Australia or the Arabian peninsula.

Yet the continent accounts for only a miniscule percentage of the world’s solar energy output. And most of what it does generate is produced in one country, South Africa.

“In Africa, there is a growing awareness of the potential benefits of solar, especially as the conventional grid continues to prove unreliable. Lots of people are looking for alternatives,” said Lawrence Agbemabiese, a Paris-based energy expert at the United Nations Environment Programme (Unep).

And the need for energy could hardly be more urgent: in sub-Saharan Africa, barely one person out of four has access to grid electricity. And in the region’s rural areas, this falls to just a tenth.

At the micro scale, grassroots groups are pushing solar through simple, low-tech applications. One such example is the solar cooker, in which a polished concave dish focuses sunbeams on to a pot, slowly heating water.

But on a macro scale, solar power is almost untapped. Why so?

Most reasons boil down to money.

Solar panels, or photovoltaic systems, use semiconductors to generate electricity, and can be used for individual buildings or villages. Another solar source, but in a collective role, is solar thermal, which uses the sun to create steam that turns a turbine to generate electricity.

Both technologies are sprouting across wealthier economies, but only thanks to tax breaks and discounts that remain beyond the reach of the planet’s poorest continent.

“The photovoltaic boom in Europe and Japan depend on a very generous pricing structure. It is a policy found only in rich countries,” explained Yves Bruno Civel, head of France’s Renewable Energy Observatory, based in Paris.

Not able to surf on the current solar wave
“One has to be realistic: Africa will not be able to surf on the current wave. That will happen when economies of scale result in a drop in prices,” said Agbemabiese.

Beyond financial constraints, solar technologies suffer from an image problem in parts of Africa, because they usually operate on a small scale and in isolation.

Indeed, some rural areas continue to resist solar energy out of fear that it will preclude later access to national or regional electricity networks.

But there is a silver lining: in the same way that cellphones are a cost-efficient alternative to laying telephone lines, the very fact that solar panels can be installed in the remotest of regions can make them a more affordable solution than connecting to existing power grids.

There can be hidden costs of depending on a centralised source of energy, explained Agbemabiese.

For rural hospitals, for example, an eight-hour power cut by the electricity grid can destroy thousands of dollars’ worth of medicine, he said.

Some governments have initiated policies to promote use of solar energy at village level.

In West Africa, for example, Burkina Faso offers state-backed micro-credit loans, paid back over two or three years, that make it possible for a family to purchase a solar panel. Ghana is also looking at how to set up a system of financial incentives.

The continent is also making its first tentative steps towards large-scale solar generators big enough to power an entire region.

A “solar plan” sketched by the newly minted Union for the Mediterranean — a grouping of European Union nations and non-EU countries — aims to create gargantuan thermodynamic generators in the middle of the Sahara Desert.

With a projected output of 100 gigawatts by 2050, a project initiated by Middle Eastern and North African nations called “Desertec” could not only help power large swathes of North Africa, but parts of Europe as well via trans-Mediterranean cables.

One gigawatt is enough to power a city the size of San Francisco.

Concerns about soaring oil costs, dependence on Russian natural gas, and climate change have made some EU nations keen to push the project forward.

But sub-Saharan Africa — far from Europe, lacking infrastructure and in some places prone to chronic instability — will have a hard time attracting such investments, experts say. — AFP