What Future for Solar Power in Africa?

This is another post where I get myself into trouble by venturing into a new area – infrastructure, in this case – but this post from the environmentalist blog Treehugger caught my eye:

In Uttar Pradesh, one of India’s poorest states, a pair of US-born entrepreneurs is creating a new model for energy delivery to villages far from the grid. The founders of Mera Gao Power build and operate solar-powered micro grids to provide low-cost lighting and mobile phone charging to village houses, giving many rural people access to both light and power for the first time in their lives.

[…]

Mera Gao Power’s low energy design calls for just four solar panels for each system, which are sufficient to supply a village of 100 households with both light and mobile charging. And because most light is used at night, but generated during the day, banks of four batteries are used to store up to two days of power are also installed near the panels. Power is then distributed from the batteries to the other households in the village.

“Micro” strikes me as the key word in that passage.

If India, why not Africa?

The idea of using solar power in the global South generally – and Africa specifically – is not new. The UN was talking about it, and funding it, by the early 1990s:

Electrifying rural areas poses unique challenges for African governments. Remote and scattered, rural homes, unlike homes in urban areas, are costly and often impractical to connect to the grid. Under the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), countries are seeking innovative alternatives to give rural families efficient means to cook their food and light their homes. Stand-alone sources of energy, such as solar, wind and mini-hydro generators, can help fill the gap.

[…]

In the early 1990s, numerous villages turned to solar power in parts of Africa where one might least expect to stumble upon an oasis of lights shimmering in the pitch-black night. Perhaps the most ambitious project of this nature, and one that is often cited, is a Zimbabwean project supported by UNDP through the Global Environment Facility (GEF). The initiative, jointly funded by GEF ($7 mn) and Zimbabwe ($400,000), installed some 9,000 solar power systems throughout the country in a bid to improve living standards, but also to curtail land degradation and pollution.

Such efforts have continued. And here’s a recent profile of a private company, SolarNexus, that is attempting to spread solar in Africa by selling a “contained system of solar power generation that can be installed relatively quickly and easily.”

The idea of solar power generation becoming more efficient and affordable, and solar panels become smaller and easier for individuals or small communities to own and operate, makes me think immediately of the rapid spread of cell phones in Africa, a spread that occurred without (in many countries) a widespread landline infrastructure in place. Similarly, the trajectory of electrification in India, Africa, and elsewhere is not necessarily following that of the US or Europe.

I am neither a scientist nor an engineer and thus I am in no position to evaluate how solar stacks up against other power sources at present. But from a political and societal standpoint it seems to me that many people who lack reliable electricity and rely instead on intermittent government power or gasoline-powered home generators, as well as people who don’t have electricity at all, would switch to solar if the equipment was cheap, available, and effective.

Finally, solar’s growth could have interesting effects on relationships between citizens and governments in countries like Nigeria and Senegal, where spotty power is a frequent source of popular anger. Cheap solar could assuage that anger, or it could – especially if solar equipment is provided primarily by private companies – simply reinforce a sense that governments are impotent and corrupt.

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15 thoughts on “What Future for Solar Power in Africa?

  1. I actually trained as an electronic engineer. The key problem with Solar power is what happens when it gets dark? How do you store the energy?

    Inverters can convert the energy stored in the batteries to alternating current using PWM (Pulse Width Modulation) technology. Power electronics costs are dropping and LED (light emitting diode) based lamps are becoming cost competitive, so theoretically there is a bright future.

    But batteries are expensive.

    However, there is too much hype. How much energy can current PV (photo voltaic) technology produce, and at what cost? How maintenance intensive is it? How come most of the serious energy companies aren’t that enthusiastic?

    I tend to stay clear from “aid industry driven innovation”, the hype is always more than the reality. When serious business men (from China) start investing in this idea, I will take it seriously.

    • Thanks, Maduka, for your note. You are right that batteries are a big portion of the cost. The batteries and panels make up 60% of the cost of our systems. But because we have tailored the design to specific needs of our target market, we have reduced the cost of a solar powered micro grid significantly. For a 100 household village, our system costs $2,500. That may be too much for a village to cover, but corporations can cover that easily. The business model is to take on the investment on behalf of the customers and allow the customers to pay us small weekly payments rather than one large up front payment.

      I read below that you are based in Lagos. I lived in Nigeria for 4 years and believe that the same model would be well suited for Northern Nigeria. Many villages are fairly densely built, there is ample sun, and the needs of off-grid villages is similar to India. Costs would be higher due to customers and transport, but tariffs could be higher as well since kerosene reaches end consumers at a very high price. The Niger Delta I believe would be better suited for wind, but beyond the energy source the model could be very similar.

      Thanks again for your comment.

  2. “When serious business men (from China) start investing in this idea, I will take it seriously”

    That statement summarizes your rather ignorant post from a so called electronic engineer. China is very far ahead in this game. If they are not leaders in production, they are number 2.

    • I actually know that Chinese companies like Suntech have invested heavily in solar power. However, they have invested in solar power for China – where it is not the sole source of power but a supplementary source.

      In the developing world, it is different, solar power is very likely to be the sole source of power for many communities. Even though the costs are dropping, the costs per kilowatt are relatively high and battery and inverter costs are also high.

      So far Chinese businessmen are not investing that heavily in solar power for Africa. On the other hand, they are selling small petrol driven generators….

      • They are selling small petrol driven generators because that is what Africans are asking for today…..The Chinese have proven that they are tech agnostic. They will supply whatever your local market demands so long as they can make money. It speaks nothing of the value and strength of solar power.

      • No, solar power theoretically makes absolute sense if (a) the costs are competitive and (b) you can use it without problems at night.

        I actually live in Lagos (with its chronic power failures). The Chinese have been selling inverters (which convert DC power to AC power), but to successfully use an inverter you’ve got to charge your inverter battery either when the generator is running or when you have mains electricity. So you need a generator in addition to your inverter.

        And your inverter battery isn’t that durable.

        You can also add a solar panel, but you’d really need a huge solar panel to produce the same output as even the smallest petrol-driven generator. So people are not bothering to buy them.

        In rural areas, what kinds of loads will be required in day time (when the intensity of the sun is the highest)? Mainly grinding machines (which are electric motor powered) and electric motors required a bit more power.

        Finally, creating a market for a product is a bit different from an aid agency distributing free solar panels to communities. I believe that affordable solar power will happen and it will be preferable to petrol-driven generators (with efficiency as low as 50%). Right now it isn’t.

        Remember the Chinese have also been selling energy efficient LED driven flash lights and energy efficient light bulbs – if it efficient and makes economic sense it will be hungrily picked up by African consumers. It is less about “market demand” in the sense you described it, but what makes economic sense.

        Solar doesn’t, for the time being.

      • I am not sure how much you know about solar power because there are quite a lot of misconceptions in your post.

        Bottom-line if you feel that Solar power only makes sense in Africa when the Chinese start selling it to us, I will reiterate my point again that it says nothing about the technology or its competitiveness. It only means that the Chinese have yet again figured out a way to make a cheaper, more inferior version for the African market and still make a profit. All their products in Africa could never make it past the ports in the US.

      • I am a realist. The Chinese and the Indians are the only people that can produce and sell that kind of technology at a competitive price for the African consumer

        Virtually all our electronics, white goods, motorcycles and generators are produced in these two countries. The US and Europe simply cannot produce at a competitive price.

        I don’t want to get into a long-winded argument with you over solar technology. I have simply presented an argument about the pitfalls and advantages. You can accept my reasoning or reject it.

        As I said earlier, a successful deployment of solar technology in Africa is a bit different from an aid agency distributing free solar panels to a few villages.

      • The costs for the U.S used to be true, I’m not so sure anymore. A good number of goods coming out of Asia actually involve multiple nations, it’s simply that China and its neighbors subsidize key parts of the industry and so until recently they couldn’t be produced elsewhere. Of course if the U.S does the same it could set off a wave of protectionism but given politics and economics here we might give up the idea of completely free trade (God alone knows how that’ll impact on our treaties in North America and the Pacific).

        In any case there are a few other ideas about energy supply floating around that might work.

      • Gyre,

        America is cost competitive in the area of high-end electronics, but the low-end stuff is equally important and that is where Indian and Chinese companies like Suzlon and Suntech have an advantage.

        What I was trying to point out is that Africa is littered with a lot of abandoned aid projects and there is a strong likelihood that this initiative in India will suffer the same fate (the project survives on a grant from USAID).

        I still believe that solar energy will take Africa by the storm (theoretically you can supply all of Europe’s energy needs from the Sahara desert), but the economics needs to be right before everything else takes off.

  3. Pingback: Solar power gets realistic « Changed Times

  4. Interesting arguments from all of you. I am not an expert in Solar energy production but in a way i tend to agree with maduka in some points like the aid project issue however i don’t believe that it will be taken serious only when the Chinese business men get involved. One point that i think that i think that have not been considered is the efficiency of solar power generation in high temperate regions such as Africa because solar panels are not really effective when you have high temperatures, given that the electric resistance is increased with increase in temperature.

  5. quite interesting to read all these, but let us face reality.. with so much required in deriving energy in our country, we have no option than to embrace solar electricity.the initial capital might be scary but far far outweighs the the use of running generators and the unreliable and coming at so much expenssive grid power now. solar it is now check us out at ttlsolar. ttl1171@yahoo.co.uk. or call us on 08036343268

  6. The only reason why Indian and China can produce low end electronic devices, is because of a comparatively cheaper man-power and subsidies from Government. There are many different companies in India such as NIMH Technolinks, D.light, Sunlite, etc. that not only take efforts in manufacturing and selling of solar lanterns in India, but also export them to Africa at a cheaper price.
    Although i agree that Maduka does have an undeniable point about the expenses of a battery, but if people in Africa are provided solar lamps with small and portable PV Panels, then it would be convenient for them to have a radiant light without bearing any expenses for the batteries.

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