Africa south of the Sahara Desert has well over 900 million people. Yet this extensively large region, consumes less electricity than most American states or the smallest countries in Europe. Solar power could well be the answer for a continent that has not undergone the energy revolution of the 20th century. Large swaths of the population still rely on power sources from the 19th century. This lack of investment in infrastructure, is one reason why this area of the world, continues to be a laggard in economic development.
The population of this part of Africa is projected to practically double in 25 years. The continued use of kerosene, wood and other natural products is expensive, environmentally destructive as well as dangerous. Hundreds of thousands of people die every year in Africa, as a result of the lack of a modern electrical system. The loss of productivity alone, is a big part of what keeps this part of the world from reaching its full economic potential.
To explore why solar power might well be the answer for this part of the world is a simple case of cost analysis. Modern power generation is expensive. Plants that produce electricity must be constructed at great cost and then a massive grid system must be developed, to deliver the energy produced. These investment costs become prohibitive outside the major cities. This model is in retreat almost everywhere in the world, as power generation becomes more localized.
What makes solar power the answer for the rural areas and the interior of Africa is based on three developments that are now occurring. The first and most important is the rapid decline in price from generating electricity from solar power. In less than 7 years costs have been reduced by 75%. This is expected to accelerate as the industry is being forced to reduce the cost of production in order to survive a period of low prices for fossil fuels including coal, oil and natural gas.
The second major advancement is in how the electricity produced from solar energy is stored. Major advancements are being made so power will be made available for consumers, even when the sun is not shining. More sophisticated batteries and storage units are becoming the norm across the industry.
The third advancement is in the light bulb itself. Traditional incandescent lights are inefficient and impractical. Much of the energy utilized by these bulbs is used in the creation of heat rather than light. In addition they are fragile and are not long term. The rapid decline in price for LEDs (light-emitting diodes) offers a number of new features that compare quite well to the conventional light bulb. The first is efficiency in the initiation of light. There is very little heat involved in the process. The next advantage is that these new tubes are designed to last much longer. Finally the LED is a much sturdier type of bulb in the generation of light.
Another consideration is the rapid decline in the price of solar powered lamps. These can now be purchased for less than $10.00 USD (United States Dollar). Although this may still be relatively expensive to the 1.2 billion of the poorest consumers on the planet, it has now become in the realm of a possibility of being afforded. The savings from no longer needing more traditional light sources, soon cancel out the investment made in solar power and the new lamps. This is not to mention the rise in productivity as individuals are permitted to study and work as a result of having a new dependable light source.
Larger solar systems can provide electricity to charge phones and other household devices.
The continent of Africa on the whole is blessed overall with endless sunny days in many areas. The Sahara Desert alone, could power the entire globe with solar energy if it became necessary. The DESERTEC established in 2003, is the initiative started in Germany, that will eventually allow Africa to supply 15% of the electrical needs of Europe through solar power.
Morocco has been a leader in the development of solar energy. The kingdom began a $9 billion USD plan in 2009 that will generate 2,000 MW (Megawatts) of power by 2020. Since Morocco is the only country with a cable power link to Europe it is expected to benefit the most from European investment.
Larger scale photo-voltaic power plants are being constructed in Kenya, Ghana, Rwanda and South Africa. However, the biggest expansion is happening at the village and household level. Here it is the small scale modular power installations, that will allow Africa to economically join the 21st century.
The scale of expansion and investment in solar power for Africa is impressive by any measure. The sale of solar devices are nearly doubling on an annual basis. Close to 30 million Africans will be using solar power in 2015. Just 6 years ago, only 1% of unelectrified sub-Sahran Africa used solar lighting now that number is close to 5%. On a global scale, in less than 2 decades it is estimated that over 500 million people who currently do not have access to electricity, will have at least 200 watts available to them on a daily basis.
Companies around the world are already engaged in providing appliances and consumer durables that will run on solar power. These machines will run on lower voltage and can be used intermittently. Having a refrigerator for example, that only needs to be powered a few hours a day and still fulfill its function, will revolutionize life in the countryside for many Africans.
Larger solar generators of power can provide whole areas with irrigated and fresh water for drinking and agriculture. They can also be used to run businesses, medical clinics, schools, and offices. Having the ability to light public areas through street lights will increase safety and reduce crime.
There are still major constraints to the further expansion of a solar powered Africa. The largest remains working capital. The start up costs can still be somewhat prohibitive to small villages and farms. Some ingenious ways are being devised to overcome this, but more will need to be done to assist the poorest of people on the continent. Some areas have already started selling solar power as a monthly service, rather than have the customer own the power generation.
Another concern is the quality of the equipment that will be used to generate the solar power. Many Africans would not have the ability to deal with shoddy workmanship and instruments that will not last very long.
The last area of anxiety for African consumers is the question of whether there will there a sufficient supply and variety of appliances that will be made available. There is still a dearth of appliances that will utilize this new power source. Refitting appliances to operate on a low voltage DC (direct current) electricity is expensive and time consuming. However, this will most likely become less of an issue as companies look to uncap this growing market. Can you imagine the demand in Africa and in other parts of the emerging world, for a low cost and efficient fan that uses solar power?