Magazine article African Business

Is Solar Power the Solution Africa Has Been Waiting For?

Magazine article African Business

Is Solar Power the Solution Africa Has Been Waiting For?

Article excerpt

Of all the renewable energy sources now being fiercely debated, solar generation seems to be custom-tailored for Africa. It is clean, it is efficient and it is silent. It is also now becoming more affordable. Will Africa take the global lead in seriously going solar virtually all the way? Valerie Noury discusses.

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A new report, Solar Generation 6, released by the European Photovoltaic Industry Association (EPIA) and Greenpeace International, highlights the scale of global investments in solar photovoltaic (PV) technology, which is set to double by 2015, going from [Euro]30bn-40bn ($40.62bn-$54.17bn) today to nearly $95bn in 2015. The report says that PV alone could account for 12% of European power demand by 2020 and 9% of global power demand by 2030.

"Today's cost predictions, driven by economies of scale in light of global photovoltaic capacity, totalling 40,000MW in 2010, show that the technology is on the brink of an economic breakthrough," says Ingmar Wilhelm, president of the EPIA. This momentum has the potential of benefiting millions in the developing world who often live a great distance from electricity grids and fuel pipelines. The price of PV is expected to drop by 40% by 2015.

With Africa receiving almost 365 days of radiant sunshine a year and with some entrepreneurs already predicting a solar-power revolution, what could these advancements mean for the continent?

In addition to the obvious green credentials, PV could be an answer to the problem of volatile fossil-fuel prices and also become a driver of economic growth - currently nearly 85% of Africans in rural areas do not have access to electricity. Based on present trends, it is predicted that Africa's non-electrified households will go from 110m to 120m in 2015 and non-electrified small businesses will reach 10m.

The technology is very attractive: PV converts sunlight directly into electricity in a clean, sustainable and silent manner. It also has no complicated moving parts, reducing wear and tear and requiring little maintenance. According to the Lighting Africa initiative, which receives support from the World Bank and the International Finance Corporation (IFC), the African market for off-grid renewable lighting will experience explosive growth. The sale of portable solar lights will easily increase 40%-50% each year and reach 5m-6m households by 2015. This constitutes a modest forecast as many experts are stating that if market failures are corrected, then the solar revolution could equal the booming mobile phone market, which experiences 65% growth in sales each year.

Apart from the continuing decrease in the price of solar components, the price of other prime lighting fuels will determine how well solar power will catch on. Kerosene, widely used by many, is not only environmentally harmful but incredibly dangerous. Breathing in kerosene fumes a few hours a day equals the same as smoking two packs of cigarettes and kerosene lamps cause 1.5m deaths in Africa a year, costing households around $225 annually.

Another important pillar to success of is the capability of designers to create an innovative product that attends to the specific needs of the customer. In Africa, the ability of solar power to charge a mobile phone and generate prolonged battery life are aspects that could drive the technology's success further and faster.

Globally only a small fraction of solar panels, perhaps 5% to 6%, are manufactured to produce electricity that does not feed into the grid. For Africa, the real opportunity for solar energy is empowering individuals in remote areas. Phaesun Asmara, an Eritrea-based business which works across Ethiopia, Uganda, Malawi, Ghana and Kenya, recently changed its focus from big solar projects financed by the private sector to an emphasis on small rooftop systems.

Solar-powered drip irrigation systems significantly enhance household incomes and the nutritional intake of villagers in arid sub-Saharan Africa, according to a new Stanford University study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). …

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