Africa and the challenge of the sun

Africa and the challenge of the sun

Arianna Pescini
By 2030, the continent will achieve 610 GW of solar power, which will mainly be used to produce electricity, the demand of which is expected to triple over the next 15 years. This is according to data illustrated by Dolf Gielen, Director of the Innovation and Technology at IRENA

Solar energy and development. Africa has officially launched the challenge to transform the natural wealth of the sun into an opportunity to improve the economy and the lives of millions of people. The figures for 2015 are clear: the continent is one of the areas that has most increased its investment in the solar and thermal sector; specifically, Morocco and South Africa ranked in the top r5 for global CSP production, that is, the capacity to concentrate solar power (through mirrors and special lenses).

A solar capacity that could bring thousands of GW to the continent

According to some studies on renewables in Africa by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), the continent’s solar energy capacity has increased in less than 10 years from 62 to 2,094 megawatts (MW), and production jumped from just 84 gigawatts (GW) in 2006 to 1,974 in 2015, for a turnover which in 2014 reached $1,019 million: "In recent years, we have seen an increase in the use of solar and wind capacity" explained Dolf Gielen, Director of the IRENA Innovation and Technology Center, "with almost 2 GW of solar photovoltaics installed at the end of 2015. Forecasts indicate that by 2030 in Africa, there will be a 70 GW increase in this form of energy, while CSP systems will produce another 40 GW." Specifically, as also confirmed by the network "Ren21," the photovoltaics and solar panels sector yielded (last year’s figures) 1,732 GW of energy derived from the sun and approximately $300 million in profit. Among the most virtuous countries are South Africa (which has doubled its production capacity, from 16 to 1,272 MW) and the Maghreb states (Algeria increased from 2 to 299 MW), as well as other countries such as Rwanda, Ghana, Kenya, Namibia and the small Reunion: "Increasingly more African countries are focusing on solar power” continues Gielen “in addition to leaders such as Morocco, South Africa and the Southern Islands, Nigeria and Egypt are also progressing rapidly. The solar park project in Zambia, supported by the World Bank, among others, is also a demonstration of how to create a competitive business in the photovoltaics sector, with system costs set at just $0.06 per Kwh".

The 2030 objectives and the realities of today. In Nigeria a solar park as big as Rabat

Considering that, on average, production costs will continue to fall (in 2025 they will reach $0.79 per watt), existing or future projects for solar and thermal power plants amount to over 300, for an investment that will total $45 billion. The most recent agreement concerns Nigeria: the government of the Sokoto State has appointed a Chinese company, “Kunming Engineering”, to construct a 100-MW solar power plant. An incredible expanse of solar panels occupies part of the Sahara Desert in Morocco, near the town of Ouarzazate. This is only the start of a huge solar park project which, by 2018, will become the largest in the world (it will be as large as the capital city of Rabat), with a capacity of 580 MW and the possibility of supplying electricity to over one million people. The Ouarzazate plant will cost a total of $9 billion and will save Morocco hundreds of thousands of tons of CO2 emissions per year. The solar plants that are flourishing in Africa use state-of-the-art technologies: in South Africa, one of the most active countries in the sector, the Swedish company "Ripasso Energy" has installed specific parabolic reflectors, much more efficient than the traditional panels, which literally follow the sun. In the solar "farm" in Rwanda, the 28,360 panels installed to the east of the capital, Kigali, tilt according to the movement of the sun, regulated remotely by computer. The Rwanda plant has a capacity of 8.5 MW which, by 2017, will supply electricity to half of the population.

The infinite uses of solar power: small-scale plants in Tanzania, Mali and Morocco

The relative ease of production and use of solar power plants has also led to the birth of small-scale systems, specifically for the local people, for instance in Tanzania, Mali and even in Morocco, where over 3,600 villages are supplied with electricity through mini panel systems. The solar energy market may prove valuable for the future of Africa, partly because in 2030 the continent will need 610 GW of power, which will be used for industrial purposes, to desalinate water and, above all, to produce electricity, the demand of which is expected to triple in the next 15 years: "The African population is growing rapidly," emphasized Gielen, "and over 600 million people still have no access to electricity. For them and for the rural communities, solar power is the most convenient means for accessing energy services. The benefits are immense: it can help to reduce poverty, create new job and development opportunities, and improve health care. Electricity allows children to study in the evenings, and allows for surfing the Internet, using refrigerators and having street lights. All this without the use of kerosene or diesel". It also enables cell phones to be charged without having to walk for hours in search of a power socket, as still happens in many villages. Heliothermic and other renewables are therefore an indispensable opportunity. The goal for Africa is clear: by 2040, at least one quarter of all electricity will come from clean energy.