Africa on brink of solar power explosion, according to international agency
Africa is about to experience a “solar revolution” akin to the rapid increase in mobile phone use on the continent two decades ago, according to the head of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA).
The body’s director general Adnan Amin believes that fast-dropping costs for solar power combined with plenty of sun and a huge need for additional electricity capacity are set to create the perfect conditions for a massive increase in adoption of the technology.
The continent gets 117 per cent more sunshine than Germany, which today has the highest installed solar power capacity, he said.
“Africa’s solar potential is enormous,” he said. “It has never been more possible and less expensive for Africa to realise this potential.”
Both grid-connected solar power and off-grid solar energy now offer “cost-competitive means to meet rising energy needs and bring electricity to the 600 million Africans who currently lack access”.
Improving transmission and storage for solar power along with new payment systems also open the door to economic boosts and millions of new jobs across the continent Amin believes.
“Africa’s vast solar potential presents a huge opportunity for people to engage in a range of economic activities such as irrigation and agro-processing, and it is already beginning to happen,” he said.
Although solar can have high upfront costs compared to traditional fuels, a number of technological and financing advances such as pay-as-you-go solar using mobile phones are helping deal with that problem.
Even these costs are dropping and the expectation is that this trend will continue. The price of producing power from solar mini-grids – installations unconnected to larger national grid systems – is expected to fall by at least 60 per cent over the next two decades.
“The rapid rise of pay-as-you-go solar home systems and integration with mobile payment technology is an example of the speed of innovation that is taking place. In East Africa alone, over 450,000 such systems have been deployed,” he said.
IRENA estimates that up to 60 million Africans already may be using off-grid renewable electricity of some kind.
For the use of solar to dramatically expand further, countries will need sound regulatory frameworks, master plans that help draw in local investors and a sufficient number of entrepreneurs, Amin said.
Government finance institutions will also need to help cut the risks investors face in financing large solar projects in order to keep interest rates for loans low, he said.
That view is shared by Snehar Shah, director of solar company Azuri East Africa, which has sold over 100,000 solar home systems in East Africa over the last four years.
He believes the majority of people in East Africa living away from national power grids will need to rely on solar for energy – and that emerging innovations will persuade them to do that.
“Just as landline telephones once were the preserve of elites in Africa but mobile telephones are now owned by nearly everyone, solar power presents much larger possibilities for expansion than grid power,” Shah said.
“Solar is cost effective when compared to the cost of getting connected to grid electricity in Africa and it is stable, ensuring that outages, which are a daily thing with grid (power), are non-existent,” he said.
Reliability “is one thing that is attracting people to solar”, he said.
Solar firms such as Azuri not only offer solar panels but also accessories to make the most of that power, such as efficient LED lights, televisions, torches, phone chargers and radios, Shah said. The company also provides finance for customers, cutting out the need to seek separate bank loans.
Crafting policies to support the growth of solar power will be key for continued uptake of it, said Pavel Oimeke, director of renewable energy for the Kenya Energy Regulatory Commission.
Some African countries have lowered or removed duties on the import of solar equipment and appliances, while others – such as Kenya – have set attractive feed-in tariffs for renewable energy to attract investment in solar power plants.
A report released earlier this month concluded that the falling cost of electric vehicles and solar panels could lead to ever-decreasing demand for fossil fuels from as early as 2020.