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African nations skip grid and jump at solar

Rather than install more telephone landlines many sub-Saharan nations jumped straight to mobile. And history is repeating itself as they skip on expanding their power grids and jump straight to decentralized renewable resources like solar energy.

“About 70% of people in Africa do not have access to electricity and more than 70% of African fuel source is of organic matter, wood and cow dung, even though it is the continent with the highest solar radiation,” said Canadian Solar’s Wido Schnabel, Head of Strategic Alliances and Business Development. "Namibia, were I was born has, next to Chile, the highest solar yields in the world. So something is wrong here and we can change this with solar,” added Schnabel. 


This sentiment was underlined at the recent Dar es Salaam energy conference in Tanzania, where over 200 energy experts and investors met to explore how they might resolve the power crises that many African countries struggle with and, in particular, the challenges facing the host nation.

Commenting on the energy options available to Tanzania, Wido Schnabel of Canadian Solar said, “Solar power is one of the cheapest and most reliable sources of energy around! This is basically due to the fact that it does not require distribution infrastructure, and does not need a grid system,” he said. He also noted that, while other sources of energy have caused wars and social conflict in many parts of the world, the case is different with solar energy.

Any way one cuts it, the electrification of Africa represents and enormous challenge. More than two-thirds of the continent’s sub-Saharan population currently lack access to electricity and, according to the International Energy Agency, the region will require more than $300 billion in investment to achieve universal access electricity by 2030.

“The electrification of Africa is considered so important that President Obama recently announced the Power Africa initiative, which aims to double power access in sub-Saharan Africa in the next five years through a series of public-private partnerships and financial support,” said Trevor de Vries, Canadian Solar strategic accounts head for Southern Africa.


However, extending conventional grids to remote areas is not feasible because of potentially enormous construction costs due to great distances and difficult terrain.

“Off-grid renewables are particularly well suited to sparsely populated regions where the alternatives are costly in terms of cash and damage to the environment,” said de Vries. “Our highly successful CS6P-P modules have already proven themselves to by a versatile solution in providing for the needs of small off-grid communities. As have our Andes and Maple Systems. The Andes system is inexpensive and easy to set-up, making it ideal for individual homes or small-business owners in remote areas, while the Maple system provides a clean and convenient LED lighting solution,” he said.

Many sub-Saharan governments are offering substantial incentives to companies willing to provide decentralized renewable power. But even without the incentives, renewable energy can undercut traditional rivals such as diesel and kerosene. Solar panels and wind turbines only have to be brought onto site once, while diesel and kerosene have to be resupplied every few weeks, making the relative cost of these fossil fuels enormous.

“A major advantage of stand-alone off-grid renewables is that they do not require transmission and distribution networks and can cost-effectively power essential services such as lights, cell phones, vaccine refrigerators and water pumps in low-density rural areas,” commented Canadian Solar’s de Vries. “Photovoltaic microgrids are increasingly emerging as favorable off-grid power options for the electrification of rural settlements and remote industrial operations in Africa, largely owing to a continued increasing of the diesel price coupled with the mainstreaming of PV technologies,” he added.

Mr. de Vries also pointed out that remote microgrids have numerous cost-effective applications in Africa. And the opportunities are large. “Some 30-million rural households are still without electricity, and microgrid-generated power could also be used for critical water pumping and purification. In addition, microgrid technology could serve as a basic healthcare enabler, as some one-billion people on the continent are served by healthcare facilities that do not have access to electricity."

“But the low-hanging fruit here is solar in the mining industry, which still largely uses expensive diesel generators. While the initial capital expenditure associated with diesel generators is low, their support and maintenance costs are prohibitive,” he said.

According to De Vries, the solar enabled microgrid sector’s biggest opportunity, however, lay in mobile communication in Africa. There are currently some 64 000 off-grid telecommunications towers that are powered remotely and they support a mobile industry in which there is a huge demand for electricity. “At the moment, there are around 548-million users that spend between $2 and $3 a day on charging their phones because they don’t have access to power,” he said.