Andreas Späth

Solar power shines in Africa

2015-11-02 10:01

Andreas Wilson-Späth

Africa has immense potential to generate electricity from sunlight. In fact, the continent should really be leading the rest of the world in this department.

Rather than locking countries into a carbon-intensive, climate-changing, fossil fuel driven development path, solar power (along with other renewable energy technologies, especially wind power) offers the prospect of providing clean electricity to many people affordably and quickly.

By now, the technology is as flexible and scalable as it is mature and costs continue to fall. Applications range from roof-top arrays of solar panels which supply individual homes to massive industrial installations that feed electricity into the national power grid.

With two out of every three Africans still living without regular access to electricity – that’s well over 600 million people – the solar revolution can’t come quickly enough and signs are that it is finally taking off.

After a sluggish start, South Africa is steadily bringing an increasingly impressive assortment of grid-supplying solar (and wind) power stations into production, but the technology is also catching on elsewhere.

The UK is assisting Sierra Leone and Nigeria (and soon a number of additional countries) in speeding up off-grid solar electrification projects. Earlier in the year, the Tanzanian government announced an initiative to use solar energy to supply electricity to a million homes by 2017, generating over 15 000 solar industry jobs in the process.

In Kenya, microgrids powered by collections of photovoltaic solar panels have started to provide electricity to businesses and homes in rural areas not served by the national power network. While autonomous roof-top systems represent a huge improvement for many individual households, stand-alone microgrids are a fast and cost-effective way to generate and distribute electricity that uplifts entire communities at once.

The new champion of solar power progress in Africa, however, is located to the north, on the sun-drenched edge of the Sahara. Morocco currently imports over 90% of its domestic electricity needs, but that’s destined to change rather quickly.

The first country in the world to commit itself to a reduction in its subsidies to fossil fuels, Morocco is investing heavily in renewable sources of energy. By 2020, almost half of its electricity is scheduled to come from solar, wind and hydroelectric plants.

The flagship of Morocco’s energy plans is a massive concentrated solar power station near the desert city of Ouarzazate which will employ hundreds of thousands of curved mirrors to focus sunlight onto fluid-filled pipes in order to produce steam and drive electricity-generating turbines. One particularly attractive feature of this type of system is that the liquid has the capacity to retain heat for hours and to produce power even after the sun has gone down (South Africa already has similar facilities in operation and under construction).

The first phase of the project is slated to come online this month with a generating capacity of 160MW of electricity and the ability to operate for up to three hours after sunset. Once the whole complex is completed by 2017, this will rise to 580MW and eight hours, respectively, providing electricity to about a million Moroccan homes.

- Andreas is a freelance writer with a PhD in geochemistry. Follow him on Twitter: @Andreas_Spath

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Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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