Sparks

Unlocking Africa’s solar potential

 By Robin Wylie

Africa receives more hours of bright sunshine than any other continent on Earth. The Sahara desert soaks up the lion’s share, but large tracts of sub-saharan Africa, such as the Namib desert in the south east, and the east African rift zone, also receive high levels of solar radiation year round…

This fact, coupled with Africa’s dire power shortage (around 600 million people on the continent lack access to electricity) points clearly to one solution: solar power. Yet despite Africa’s huge potential to harness solar photovoltaic, the technology has only recently begun to take off on the continent. In 2009, solar power was practically nonexistent in Africa. The entire continent only had around 100 megawatts of installed capacity, just half of one percent of the global installed capacity at the time. Since then, however, solar power has made significant strides forward in Africa. As of 2016, Africa’s total installed solar PV capacity stood at just over 2 gigawatts—representing a growth of more than 2000 percent since 2009.

A solar PV system in Namibia (GbbIT)

The growth of African solar power is primarily being driven by South Africa, which has added more than 1300 megawatts of solar PV capacity since 2011, and is currently constructing a further 1500 megawatts. Once these are online, South Africa’s solar PV plants will be able to power half a million homes.

So far no other African nations come close to matching South Africa’s hefty solar output: its closest rivals are Algeria, Ghana and Morocco, who each have between 200 and 300 megawatts of installed capacity.
But South Africa will soon have company. Morocco has set a target of reaching 2000 megawatts of solar power by 2020—a tenfold increase of the country’s current capacity—while a combined capacity of 7000 megawatts is expected to be constructed in Egypt, Kenya and Nigeria by the same year. More than 1000 megawatts of solar PV capacity are also slated to be constructed in Nigeria in the near future, while Namibia (home to the Namib desert) has plans to construct 500 megawatts.

Eni is also playing a part in the shift towards solar power in Africa. In March 2017, construction began on a new solar photovoltaic plant in the Bir Rebaa North oilfield in the Algerian Sahara, a joint venture between Eni and Groupemen Sonatrach Agip (GSA). The plant will eventually have an output of 10 megawatts, and will be used to contribute to the national grid supply, as well powering the oilfield itself. The plant is part of a wide-ranging collaboration between Eni and Sonatrach to promote and develop renewable energy sources. Eni CEO Claudio Descalzi said that “by laying the foundation stone of this plant, Eni confirms our commitment to promoting sustainable energy development in Algeria.”

Solar radiation potential across Africa

But African solar power is not restricted to large, megawatt-scale plants like Bir Rebaa North. Small-scale decentralized solar power generation is also on the rise in Africa, and is already helping bring power to some of the continent’s most remote communities.

In recent years, solar photovoltaic home systems have been adopted on a wide scale in places without access to national grids. Tanzania, for example, has approximately 7 megawatts of installed capacity, while Kenya has some 4 megawatts. Because individual units can have outputs as low as 20W, this equates to tens-to-hundreds of thousands of individual systems, each one of which can provide inexpensive power to houses and other buildings for essential services such as lighting and charging electrical appliances, as well as for water heating and desalination. Africa’s solar surge has come amidst a large drop in the price of PV modules, which fell by 75 percent worldwide between 2009 and 2015. This in turns led to a significant reduction in the levelised costs of electricity for utility-scale solar projects in Africa. In South Africa, for example, the cost of solar power decreased from $0.27 per kWh in November 2011 to $0.047 per kWh in November 2015, which is 40 percent cheaper than coal power in the country.

Africa still has less than one percent of the global solar capacity (which now stands at approximately 300 gigawatts), with solar PV costs forecast to fall by as much as 59 percent in the next eight years, Africa should be even more well placed to harness its vast resources of sunlight.

SEE MORE: Pay-as-you-go solar in Africa by Chris Dalby

about the author
Robin Wylie
Freelance earth/space science journalist. Currently finishing off a PhD in volcanology at University College London.