Sunrise over an African Power Revolution

A photograph showing the solar photovoltaic panels of the Kimberley project in South Africa.

The Rise of Solar Power Farms

This is the Jasper Project.  Over 325,000 photovoltaic panels capable of producing 180,000 MWh of clean energy every year and support the needs of almost 80,000 households.  More and more solar farms are being built across Africa.  Solar energy is on the rise.

Over the past decade, the amount of solar photovoltaic (PV) capacity in the United States has increased more than 120-fold – from 97 megawatts in 2003 to over 12,000 megawatts at the end of 2013.

In the first quarter of 2014, solar energy accounted for 74% of all the new electric generation capacity installed in the United States.

Back here in Europe, although it is no bigger than the state of Montana, Germany boasts more than a quarter of all the solar electric capacity installed on Earth.  Its 1.4 million solar energy systems produce nearly 7 percent of the nation’s electricity.  In the U.S., solar provides only about 0.5 percent.  And during the sunniest hours of the year, photovoltaic systems have satisfied up to half of Germany’s power demand.

Solar power is predicted to become the dominant source of electricity globally by 2050.

 

Deutsche Bank forecasts that, based on current fossil fuel prices, solar will produce power as cheaply as gas in two thirds of the World before 2020.  In the United Kingdom, the solar industry thinks it can compete with wind within 18 months and with gas in the near future.  In the USA, solar jobs already outnumber coal jobs.

The price of solar electric panels fell 70% in recent years, and the future costs are expected to halve again this decade.

The solar revolution was sparked by government subsidies, which attracted venture capitalists to fund innovation and created a huge market that Chinese manufacturers are battling to exploit.

Now, the African continent is showing the way with ambitious new projects…

Jasper is one of the biggest solar parks – a gigantic solar farm located near Kimberley, in South Africa – which generates a total power of 96 megawatts (MW).  This is the biggest solar plant of the whole of Africa.  The Jasper solar park has been operating since October 2014.  The area hosts the Lesedi power plant (75 MW) and a thermodynamic one, under construction, that will add further a 100 MW through an innovative Concentrated Solar Power (CSP)-based technology.

 

Employment, Economic Recovery and Green Energy

During its construction, Jasper has brought an employment demand of 1 million hours of labour with over 800 people hired during the top works stage.  And thanks to the South African REIPPPP (Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Program), part of the plant profits will be devolved to organisations for local development.

A photograph showing the members of a Ugandan community assembled at night around their village camp fire.
Around a camp fire in remote Uganda…  Over a billion people have no access to electricity worldwide.

Africa is a highly suitable environment to host solar energy projects, thanks to the high solar insolation in most of the areas and to increasing energy demand.  Yet, although the Sun is ever present during the day, the only light option at night, in many remote parts of sub-Saharan Africa, is sitting by the village fire or enjoying the moonlight.

More than half a billion people live without electricity.

 

Free Solar Power

The Sun’s rays give off approximately 1,000 watts of energy per square metre of the Earth‘s surface.  In view of that, the African continent represents one of the monitored areas by Power Clouds through its Energy Observatory.

Renewable energy projects spread in these places mean a recovery for the local economy, both in terms of employment and production in order to support people and provide a more sustainable and lasting business development model.

 

How Photovoltaic Cells Work

 

Once the preserve of the aerospace industry for  powering satellites’ electrical systems, as far back as 1958, photovoltaics are being used more and more in less exotic ways.  The technology keeps popping up in new devices all the time, from sunglasses to electric vehicle charging stations.

A diagram detailing the inner workings of a solar photovoltaic cell.Photovoltaic (PV) cells convert the energy of sunlight directly into electricity.  Most common solar cells are configured as a large-area p-n junction made from silicon.

N-type silicon has free electrons, while P-type silicon has free holes – the absence of electrons.  When N-type and P-type come into contact, an electric field is generated within the solar power cell.

A solar cell works in several steps:

  • Photons in sunlight hit the solar panel and are absorbed by semi-conducting materials, like silicon.
  • Electrons are excited from their current molecular/atomic orbital.  Once excited, an electron can either dissipate the energy as heat and return to its orbital or travel through the cell until it reaches an electrode.  Current flows through the material to cancel the potential and this electricity is captured.
  • An array of solar cells converts solar energy into a usable amount of direct current (DC) electricity.
  • An inverter can convert the power to alternating current (AC).

 

From Indoors Lighting for Each Household

A photograph showing how solar panels can be installed to provide light to even remote villages in West Africa.
Solar panels in a remote village of West Africa

African economies may be booming, but continued growth and sustainable quality of life are being jeopardised by lack of power.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates 585 million people in sub-Saharan Africa lack access to electricity, with the electrification rate as low as 14.2% in rural areas.  The problem is most acute in East Africa, where only 23% of Kenyans, 10.8% of Rwandans and 14.8% of Tanzanians have access to an electricity supply, according to the World Bank.

Despite efforts to get people onto the grid, population growth has meant these figures stay fairly steady, with the majority of people still using costly and unhealthy forms of energy for cooking and lighting.  Off-grid households in East Africa, which are also largely low-income households, spend about 0.50 USD-0.60 USD (33p-40p) per day on kerosene lighting and basic charging costs.

A photograph showing small solar panels installed on thatch-roofed huts in Kenya.
Solar panel huts, Napuu Village, Kenya

With over 20 million homes off the grid, over 3 billion USD (£2bn) is spent each year on these inefficient and unsafe energy substitutes.  Given the inefficiencies and high costs associated with alternative power sources, solar has proven hugely popular in places where it has been available.

In many sub-Saharan regions of Africa, the populations are quite dispersed.  Solar is modular, so solar power systems can be sized to fit the needs of anyone anywhere, from light to a business, or a single household, to an entire village.

A number of companies and organisations on the continent have identified solar power as the solution.  M-Kopa Solar provides “pay-as-you-go” renewable energy for off-grid households in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania.

The new breed of “solar-preneurs” is already emerging, increasing access to power while generating revenues at the same time…

 

To Fully Functioning Dispensaries

A photograph showing how solar panels can be used to power a remote dispensary/hospital in Tanzania.
Solar panels at a dispensary located at Mbingu village, in the Ifakara District, Morogoro, Tanzania

On 17th September 2013, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) supported the inauguration of a solar power system under the Small Grants Project.  The system, which costs 50,000 USD, was installed at a dispensary located at Mbingu village in the Ifakara District, in Morogoro, Tanzania.

The Mbingu dispensary serves more than 18,000 people from the nearby three villages of Mbingu, Igima and Mpofu.

The grant support was used to procure solar PV equipment and accessories, installation, commissioning and training for operation and maintenance.  Thanks to the installed system, all dispensary units including out and in-patient departments, the operation theatre, the pharmacy, and the reproductive and child health clinic are fully functional and able to operate at night without power interruptions.

Adoption of solar energy at the Mbingu dispensary is part of a wider support to the Government and people of Tanzania, which UNDP is providing under its energy and climate change portfolio with a view to promoting the paradigm shift towards low-carbon and climate resilient development in Tanzania.

The UNDP Small Grants Project works directly with local communities and quite often in remote and hard to reach areas for initiatives that conserve and restore the environment while enhancing people’s livelihoods and well being.  Other health facilities that have also benefitted from the UNDP’s Small Grant Project are: St Francis, Ifakara, Lugala, Mahenge, Huruma, Rombo and Kwaruhombo.

 

To Solar Farms in Ghana…

More and more solar farms are being built across Africa.

The Republic of Ghana recorded the fastest growth in Sub-Saharan Africa last year, with GDP growing at 14.3%, driven by oil production.  The average carbon footprint is 0.4 tonnes of CO2 per head of population, compared to 8.5 tonnes of CO2 in the UK.  Ghana has a target of increasing renewable energy capacity from its current 1% of the country’s energy mix to 10% by 2020.

A photograph showing a technician inspecting photovoltaic panels at the largest African solar powered plant in Ghana.
The largest solar power plant in Africa will be built in Ghana, the British company behind the plan said on Tuesday 7th April 2015.  Source: Guardian.co.uk

Ghana is currently building Africa’s largest solar power plant.  This new drive to exploit the Sun’s energy is predicted to create hundreds of jobs and increase the country’s electricity capacity by 6%, as well as cutting emissions.  Blue Energy, the renewable energy developer behind the $400m project, which has built a solar farm 31 times smaller outside Swindon, said the 155MW solar photovoltaic plant will be fully operational by October 2015.

Construction on the Nzema project is due to begin near the village of Aiwiaso in Ghana’s Western Region by the end of 2015, with the installation of some 630,000 PV modules.  The power plant, which at the time of planning would be the fourth biggest of its kind in the World, will be the first major scheme to claim payments from Ghana’s feed-in tariff incentive scheme, created by the government in 2011.

 

And around the Mediterranean…

Morocco was the first choice location for a German-led, €400 billion project to build a vast network of solar and windfarms across North Africa and the Middle East, aiming to provide 15% of Europe’s electricity supply by 2050.  This ambitious effort is reflecting Germany’s recent decision to phase out nuclear power entirely by 2022, in reaction, partly, to the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster in Japan in March 2011.  The Desertec Industrial Initiative (DII) involves a coalition of companies including E.ON, Siemens, Munich Re and Deutsche Bank.

An aerial photograph showing Noor Ouarzazate Concentrated Solar Power project in Morocco.
Noor-Ouarzazate CSP Project, Morocco  Source: CSPworld.com

On 1st October 2014, the World Bank approved the financing of a 519 million USD solar energy development project.  The project, named the “Noor-Ouarzazate Concentrated Solar Power Project“, is located near the desert city of Ouarzazate.  It uses parabolic mirrors to generate heat for conventional steam turbines, as opposed to the photovoltaic cells used in the UK.

The 12-square kilometre Moroccan solar farm was a “reference project” to prove to investors and policy makers across Europe and the Middle East/North Africa (MENA) region that the Desertec vision is not a dream-like mirage, but one that can prove a major source of renewable electricity in the decades ahead.  Financing is intended to expand development of a Moroccan solar energy complex with the goal of increasing the complex’s energy production.  As of October 2014, the complex carried a 160 Megawatt capacity.  Project planners hope to grow that capacity to 350 MW.

Tunisia and Algeria were the next “obvious” countries, due to their close proximity to Western Europe’s grid.  And countries such as Libya, Egypt, Turkey, Syria and Saudi Arabia are predicted to start joining the network from 2020, as a network of high voltage direct current cables are built and extended across the wider region.

Transmitting energy over long distances must take into account the cost of cabling compared to energy generation, and electricity losses.  Study of the current operating technology show that electricity losses using high-voltage direct current transmission amount to only 3% per 1,000 kilometres (10% per 3,000 km).  But there are concerns that the subsequent water requirement for the solar plant to clean dust off panels, as well as for turbine coolant may be detrimental to local populations, in terms of the demand it will place on local water supply.

Counterbalancing this argument, studies point out at the generation of fresh water by the solar thermal plants.  Furthermore, no significant amount of water is needed for cleaning and cooling, since alternative technologies can be used (dry cleaning and dry cooling).

Large scale cooperation would be necessary between the European Union and the North African nations the project may be delayed due to bureaucratic red tape and other factors such as expropriation of assets.  Centralised solar energy plants and transmission lines may also become the target of terrorist attacks.

Investment may be required in a European ‘supergrid’.  One proposal is to cascade down power between neighbouring states, so that each state can draw on the power generation of neighbouring states, rather than from distant desert sites.

 

To Innovators and Wealth Creation…

The problem is that more energy is needed in hard-to-reach regions, especially when you consider that nine out of 10 people in rural Kenya do not have access to mains electricity.  The demand for energy has seen a rise in African solar energy entrepreneurs.

A photograph showing how a solar powered water pump has become a lifeline for the village of Napuu in Kenya.
A new aquifer in Turkana county has helped refugees and opened opportunities for food exports.  Source: gdb.voanews.com

M-Kopa Solar provides power to more than 140,000 households in East Africa for 0.45 USD per day, and is adding over 4,000 homes each week.  And with this increased uptake comes economic opportunities for the companies that provide it.  M-Kopa Solar‘s revenues are nearing 20 million USD per year, and the company is starting to licence its technology in other markets, such as Ghana.

Other business models are seeking to allow ordinary African individuals to start their own solar businesses.  Juabar‘s entrepreneurs are currently earning profits of between 75-150 USD per month, with the company currently leasing out 30 solar charging kiosks to Tanzanians and looking to raise $15,000 USD through crowd-funding in order to increase that number to 50.

The issue is reaching the rural areas of Africa mains electricity probably never will.  In Turkana, Kenya, a water project funded by the Japanese government and fuelled by solar power is having a dramatic effect.

 

The Potential?

For the first time, the village of Napuu has fresh, running water.  The new aquifer has helped people and opened new opportunities for food exports.

Giant solar panels generate the energy to pump the water from deep underground.

M-Kopa is demonstrating that off-grid energy will be as revolutionary to Africa in the coming decades as mobile telecommunications have been in recent years.  Solar is a massive opportunity for entrepreneurs and investors alike.

The potential is huge, the Sun always shines here and you do need alternative off-grid solutions, but there needs to be continued investment and support…