Africans look to the sun for energy

 By Andrew Burger

From Morocco to Mozambique, African nations are increasingly turning to distributed, off-grid and utility-scale solar energy generation to establish a foundation for equitable, sustainable development. In doing so they just may be able to tap into the latent talent and abilities of their citizens and offer them the means to break recurring cycles of impoverishment…

Resurrecting an initiative to produce gigawatts (GW) of solar power in the Sahara, UK-based consortium TuNur Limited in September filed a request with the Tunisian Ministry of Energy, Mines and Renewable Energy for authorization to construct a 4.5 GW solar energy export project. The project plan calls for much of the electricity generated to be delivered via high-power transmission lines to Europe for consumption.
The proposed mega solar project site is located in a newly established solar complex in the Sahara Desert in Southwest Tunisia not far from Réjim Maâtoug in the Kébili Governorate. Rather than photovoltaic solar energy technology, project partners intend to build a huge concentrated solar power (CSP) and molten salt energy storage facility.

Mega scale solar in the Sahara

Backing TuNur Limited are solar power project developer Nur Energie, Maltese and UK investors. The project plan includes programs for local development and participation by Tunisian industry in the project supply chain.
Per the CSP system’s design, parabolic mirrors would concentrate and beam sunlight and solar heat to the top, initial stage of a Carnot thermal electricity generation system situated inside a tall tower that also contains containing molten salt. In addition to heating water to generate steam to run a turbine, the solar heat would be stored in the molten salt reservoir, enabling the CSP plant to dispatch emissions-free electricity day and night.
The Maltese and UK project partners view TuNur as part of the solution to Europe’s growing electricity needs, as well as meeting the goals of the UN Paris Climate Agreement, which calls for cuts in greenhouse gas emissions across the economy and society.

Compelling economics

According to a July 31 press release, TuNur will be able to deliver enough in the way of emissions-free electricity to power more than 5 million European homes or fuel more than 7 million electric vehicles.
Three HVDC submarine cable systems capable of carrying TuNur’s output from Tunisia’s Sahara to Western Europe are already under development. The first links Tunisia and Malta, which is already connected to the European grid.
The second cable system is to link Tunisia to central Italy, with a shore-based junction point located north of Rome. A third HVDC junction point in Europe in the south of France is under study.
“The economics of the project are compelling: the site in the Sahara receives twice as much solar energy compared to sites in central Europe, thus, for the same investment, we can produce twice as much electricity. In a subsidy-free world, we will always be a low cost producer, even when transmission costs are factored in,” TuNur CEO Kevin Sara asserted.

TuNur HVDC submarine cable systems project (

Off-grid solar in Mozambique

Way down south alongside Africa’s Indian Ocean coast, Mozambique is taking a different approach in harnessing and making good use of energy from the sun. On Sept. 20, FUNAE, Mozambique’s sustainable energy and development fund offered foreign investors the opportunity to develop over 1 GW of distributed, off-grid renewable energy projects at sites it has identified in rural areas across the country.
Seen as making a significant contribution towards achieving the national goal of universal energy access by 2030, FUNAE is aiming to raise as much as $500 million from project development groups to build out rural community “green” electricity generation and distribution infrastructure. These include integrating small-scale hydroelectric power systems and solar PV generation, battery-based energy storage systems into local mini-grids.
Around 60 percent of people living in Mozambique, which is highly indebted, have no access to electricity. In total, the projects in FUNAE’s renewable energy project development portfolio offering would result in bringing sustainable energy access to 332 rural villages.
“The initiative is intended to ensure that within a 15 year horizon the Mozambican population has access to electricity outside the national power grid, thanks to small autonomous systems,” the Ministry of Mineral Resources and Energy said.

A Pan-African mini-grid vision

A founding member of the newly formed Africa Mini-grid Developers Association (AMDA), Sam Slaughter, CEO of PowerGen Renewable Energy, believes that it’s time for the mini-grid sector to move past ‘ideation’ and start executing at scale. Doing so will require gaining greater legitimacy among the many stakeholder groups involved in renewable mini-grid projects, including government, incumbent utility and infrastructure providers and local communities.
AMDA’s membership roster stands at 10 spanning chapters in Kenya and Tanzania at present, but its plans include expanding across the continent. The new organization strategic aim is to “build the energy system of the future in Africa – a grid of the 21st century, not the 20th,” Slaughter said in an interview.
“This would be a mesh-like multi-directional grid, with distributed storage and generation throughout, controlled by smart controls and meters, and maybe anchored by a transactive platform like blockchain. This is the system emerging in places like California and Germany,” and “it’s critical that Africa converges on this future,” Slaughter explained.

READ MORE: Unlocking Africa’s solar potential by Robin Wylie

about the author
Andrew Burger
Andrew Burger has been reporting on energy, technology, political economy, climate and the environment for a variety of online media properties for over five years.