Solar energy is one of the preferred solutions for electrification in Africa. This relatively easy-to-use energy is also an ally in the energy transition in certain economically advanced countries, notably South Africa and Egypt. But the industry faces a number of obstacles, including a lack of funding and poorly developed transmission infrastructure. AFRIK 21 takes a closer look at this cheap energy.
According to the African Development Bank (AfDB), 600 million Africans still have no access to electricity. One obvious solution is to exploit the continent’s potential for photovoltaic solar energy. The International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) estimates the solar energy potential of the African continent at 60 million TWh per year, compared with 3 million TWh per year for Europe, for example. The countries of northern and southern Africa are the most advantaged on the continent. There is also considerable solar potential in East Africa, the Horn of Africa and the Sahel. Central Africa, on the other hand, has less solar potential, due to its equatorial climate and forest-dominated ecosystems that reduce the penetration of the sun’s rays.
While the potential of the African continent remains largely under-exploited, many efforts are being made to facilitate and accelerate the deployment of solar energy production facilities in Africa. Thanks to a policy favourable to investment by independent power producers (IPPs), South Africa, for example, has installed solar capacity of 2,323 MWp, according to Power Africa. With the gradual fall in the operating costs of solar energy, Irena estimates that Africa could acquire 70 GW of installed solar capacity by 2030, provided that policies favouring investment in renewable energies are put in place. At present, the continent has 12 GW of installed solar capacity, according to analysis firm Rystad Energy. This capacity has been developed through a variety of solutions.
Technologies used in Africa
Among the solar energy production technologies being deployed in Africa is thermodynamic solar power. In a concentrated solar power (CSP) plant, mirrors capture the sun’s rays to generate very high temperatures of between 400 and 1,000°C. The heat thus produced is used to transform water into steam in a boiler. Under pressure, the steam turns a turbine that drives an alternator. It is this equipment that produces alternating current.
There are three types of thermodynamic solar power plant in the world. In a cylindrical collector plant, long mirrors rotate around a horizontal axis to follow the path of the sun. The rays are concentrated on a tube through which the fluid used to transport the heat to the plant circulates. In parabolic trough technology, the sun’s rays are concentrated on the focal point of adjustable parabolic troughs containing mini power plants. In the tower power plant, a field of adjustable mirrors on the ground reflects the sun’s rays onto a boiler at the top of a tower.
Because of the costs involved in installing these technologies, very few concentrated solar power projects are currently being implemented in Africa. Existing plants or those under construction are located mainly in South Africa and Morocco. In Nelson Mandela’s homeland, French IPP Engie operates the Xina Solar One and Kathu plants, each with a capacity of 100 MW. Saudi Arabian IPP Acwa Power operates the 50 MWe Bokpoort CSP. In the Cherifian kingdom, the Saudi company has built several plants of this type within the 580 MW Noor Ouarzazate solar complex.
Leadership in photovoltaic solar power
Photovoltaic power plants are the most common type of power plant, with several solar panels. In such an installation, the solar panels capture the sun’s rays. Under the effect of sunlight, the silicon, a conductive material contained in each cell, releases electrons to create a direct electric current. The inverter transforms this direct current into alternating current so that it can be more easily transported by the grid’s medium-voltage lines.
Solar megaprojects across the continent
Photovoltaics is the most developed technology in Africa, from large-scale power plants connected to the grid to solar home systems. This technology is at the heart of mega-projects to harness solar energy in Africa. This is the case at the Benban solar complex, located in the governorate of Aswan in Egypt. This is a mosaic of 32 solar power plants entirely financed and built by IPPs. The complex will come on stream in 2019, with a capacity of 1,650 MWp.
Even if the Moroccan authorities are experiencing delays in its implementation, the Noor Ouarzazate solar complex is one of the major solar projects being developed on the African continent, with a current installed capacity (including photovoltaic and CSP) of 580 MW. The project is part of the Moroccan government’s plan to generate 52% of the electricity consumed in the kingdom from renewable sources by 2030.
Decentralised solar energy or the key to rural electrification in Africa?
The development of solar energy in Africa is also being driven by decentralised systems, generally financed and installed by private companies. These solutions consist of solar home systems. This small-scale electricity network, on the scale of a house, is made up of one or more solar panels, inverters and batteries to store the electricity. The clean electricity stored in this way is redistributed on demand to the domestic grid at night or in bad weather.
The distribution of this equipment is facilitated by the pay-as-you-go system, the main method of payment for which is mobile money, a mobile phone banking service available throughout sub-Saharan Africa, even in the most remote areas. Increasingly, solar home systems are being accompanied by other services, including internet and television. This equipment is having a real impact on the electrification of rural areas. Recently, the American company d.light reported that its solar kits had provided access to electricity for 100 million people around the world, most of them in Africa. In addition to solar home systems, some companies supply complementary solar kits, including solar lamps and lanterns.
Mini-grids also help to electrify rural areas. These are small photovoltaic solar power plants with electricity storage systems using batteries or hybrid systems with generators. These installations are equipped with small distribution networks capable of supplying a community or village. Later, if necessary, the mini-grids can even be connected to the central grid. But in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Nuru company is already deploying mini-grids of over 1 MW to supply entire towns, such as Goma, the capital of North Kivu province.
In Nigeria, the continent’s most populous country (with a population of more than 206 million by 2020, editor’s note), the authorities are banking particularly on mini-grids to implement an ambitious rural electrification project (NEP) supported by the World Bank and the AfDB. As part of this, the Rural Electrification Agency (REA) is promoting the establishment of solar mini-grid suppliers by setting up a system of performance-based subsidies (PBG).
The financial barrier to solar energy
The dynamism seen in the development of solar energy is raising hopes. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that installed solar capacity on the African continent could reach 125 MW by 2030. But the sector faces a number of difficulties, not least a lack of funding. “Low investment is the main reason limiting the deployment of solar energy in Africa,” explains Mohamed Salah El Sobki, a lecturer and researcher in energy at Zewail City of Science, Technology and Innovation. According to this former director of the Egyptian Electricity Utilities Regulation and Consumer Protection Agency (EgyptERA), photovoltaic production requires massive investment.
In its report entitled “Solar energy in Africa: a bright future”, the Institut Montaigne highlights the paradox of financing solar energy through public development aid. According to this French-based think-tank, this method of financing distorts competition and discourages private investors from pursuing their efforts.
The Institut Montaigne suggests that these public funds should be allocated to building network infrastructure, reforming regulatory frameworks conducive to investment, and putting in place guarantee tools to cover certain risks, particularly political risks, in order to attract more private capital. This is all the more true given that the age and lack of electricity transmission infrastructure are among the obstacles to the development of solar energy.
Added to this is the fact that solar energy is developed through small-scale projects. While this approach seems better suited to local demand and grid capacity, it does have its drawbacks, particularly when it comes to financing. After all, “the projects are too small to bear the disproportionate cost of mobilising the tools provided by the development banks and replenished by the countless commitments made at successive COPs. These tools urgently need to be rethought and adapted to solar projects”, argues the Institut Montaigne.
The commitment of development partners
Faced with this challenge, some development finance institutions are setting up their own projects on a regional and sub-regional scale. This is the case of the International Finance Corporation (IFC) of the World Bank Group, which is extending its “Scaling Solar” programme. This programme, which is being implemented worldwide, enables the rapid installation of solar power plants through public-private partnerships (PPPs). Scaling Solar is currently being rolled out in Senegal, Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, Madagascar, Zambia and, more recently, Niger.
In addition to its investments in solar power plants across Africa, the African Development Bank (AfDB) is focusing its efforts on the Sahel, which it wants to make the largest solar energy production zone in Africa, through its “Desert to Power” initiative. The programme, which is now entering its development phase, has already received $150 million in funding from the Green Climate Fund (GCF) for its “Desert to Power G5 Sahel” facility. The AfDB is targeting an installed solar capacity of 10,000 MW in the Sahel, equivalent to the electricity production of a country like Morocco, which currently stands at 10,627 MW according to the National Water and Electricity Company (ONEE).
A few months ago, the West African Development Bank (BOAD) launched the Programme to Promote Private Investment in the Solar Energy Sector (PPIPS). The aim is to accelerate solar electrification within the West African Economic and Monetary Union (WAEMU). The PPIPS will cover Burkina Faso, Benin, Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Niger and Togo, creating a favourable framework for private sector investment in solar energy.
Jean Marie Takouleu