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December 17, 2018

Turning sunshine to energy ‘more possible, less expensive’ than ever

Sample of solar panels
Sample of solar panels

A “solar revolution” is coming to Africa, comparable in scale and importance to the rapid surge in mobile phone use on the continent two decades ago, predicts the head of the International Renewable Energy Agency.

Fast-dropping costs for solar power, combined with plenty of sun and a huge need for electricity on a continent where many are still without it, means solar has huge potential in Africa, Irena director general Adnan Amin said.

“Africa’s solar potential is enormous,” he said in an interview with the Thomson Reuters Foundation. The continent gets 117 per cent more sunshine than Germany, which today has the highest installed solar power capacity,” he said.

“It has never been more possible and less expensive for Africa to realise this potential.”

Cost effective

Amin, who was born in Nairobi, added that 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”.

Innovations, including better transmission and storage for solar power, and new payment systems, also mean using more solar power in Africa could boost economies and create jobs for millions of people across the continent, he said.

"Africa’s vast solar potential presents a huge opportunity for people to engage in economic activities such as irrigation and agro-processing, and it is already beginning to happen,” Amin said.

Solar can have high upfront costs compared to traditional fuels, but technological and financing advances, such as pay-as-you-go solar with payments made by mobile phone, are helping deal with that problem, he said.

Even the higher initial costs are coming down, he said, with solar panel prices expected to continue falling. 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 in 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, more than 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.

Right policy crucial

But for 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 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 more than 100,000 solar home systems in East Africa in four years.

He believes most 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 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, TVs, 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.

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