Time to ignite an African solar power revolution

A recent World Energy Outlook report found that over two-thirds of people in Africa live without electricity, a shocking statistic that costs the continent in health; investment, pollution and education opportunities. This lack of energy infrastructure has stalled GDP growth across the continent and underlined the need for an African solar power revolution to fill the energy.

According to Kevin Watkins, director of the Overseas Development Institute — and lead author of the influential 2015 Africa Progress Panel report, Power, People, Planet — the dark reality masks bright opportunities.

“Throughout history electricity has fuelled the growth that has created jobs, cut poverty, and improved the quality of life. Now, almost 150 years after Edison developed the lightbulb, it is time to spark an African energy revolution,” said Watkins in an opinion piece for The Guardian.

So what’s missing? Watkins tells an interesting, if familiar, story.

“We lack neither the finance nor the technologies to do so: all that’s needed is the vital connection of international cooperation and political will.”

He goes on to call for more procative policies from central governments

“Financial and technical support from government, allied to new business models. In Africa, a vibrant off-grid solar industry is poised for takeoff. The only thing missing in most countries is government action to support, encourage and enable this investment.”

One such organisation dedicated to bringing such change agrees and is setting about attracting investment and overseas know-how to help bring solar power to Africa. Fronted by US-Senegalese R&B artist Akon, the Akon Lighting Africa group is behind efforts to bring solar power to introduce renewable energy systems to the streets and villages of the continent.

Akon Lighting Africa believes that a solar power-led electricity revolution is possible for this sleeping giant of solar energy where over 320 days average sunshine occurs in most parts of Africa. The organisation has helped set up a “Solar Academy” in Mali using overseas technicians and teachers to help give African entrepreneurs the skills needed to set up solar facilities.

“We have the sun and innovative technologies to bring electricity to homes and communities,” said Akon Lighting Africa co-founder Samba Baithily. “We now need to consolidate African expertise.”

So can solar power change the lives for millions of people in Africa?

The opportunity provided by the abundance of sun and falling price of solar panels are the building blocks of an African solar power revolution. With the vision, training and desire to bring change brought about by aid organisations such as Akon, and leadership and funding from central governments, could the continent be the next renewable energy superpower?

Comments

  1. john nielsen says

    Hi Rich,
    They are poor but live in rich countries. I came from Denmark, a country with nothing in the ground except a bit of wheat and potatoes. These countries are rich in many minerals and timber. You will be poor if you run around with an ak47 in your hands during the day and pump a woman up with 12 children at night. They are poor because of their country’s management, and no solar can change that. I lived 3 years in the Philippines and many other countries including African. The UN deposit huge amount of money into these countries so they can purchase weapons from the donating countries. The very poor people in these countries have never heard of UN or any other kind of aid as it doesn’t drivel down the pyramid but the donor countries governments will tell you that they spend money on infrastructure. They build road for the rich,,, the poor don’t even have a bicycle or medication and thus hundreds of thousands die unnecessarily every year.
    Keep up the good work Rich, and if solar can in any way help, well it is a good thing that children in remote areas can read at night and learn, and perhaps one day stand up and be counted speaking out against their corrupt governments without getting a bullet.
    Kind regards
    john Nielsen, Silkwood.

  2. The fabulous thing about solar is that it can make you independent of Central government. When African or Australian government lacks vision and sits on it hands their people suffer.

    But with solar lights the kids can study at night and get good grades at school plus with solar cooking there is less indoor pollution.

    Everybody wins.

    So the African solar bonanza is just beginning and will unleash a lot of creativity precisely because it goes direct to the people.

    Great to see a post which goes beyond the usual stuff about inverters etc 🙂

  3. Thanks for your input folks. As the saying goes solar is putting power in the hands of the people.

  4. Hi Rich.
    I can’t navigate through the labyrinthine wormholes of IT, being more than five years old, so will post here a comment I made elsewhere, since it’s directly relevant to your note above:-

    As a do-it-yourselfer for probably longer than you’ve been alive, Young Finn, I entirely DISagree with your advocacy of staying on the grid.
    Buying and applying all the latest in hi-tech (or temporarily hi-tech) simply means putting yourself at the mercy of a slightly different kind of electrical industry/bureaucracy/political-machine. It entirely ignores (what used to be the point of) self-sufficiency, self-determination, and personal independence.

    Morover, the way to avoid the endless agonising about what to do with the production of ‘excess’ power is to properly size (and operate) your system in the first place.
    There’s no reason anybody with half a brain (and perhaps a bit of self-discipline) can’t produce plus/minus 5% of their own power requirements. A good few people I know ~ including myself ~ have been doing just that for 30 years or more.

    Fiddling with the latest gadgetry may be great fun ~ if you can afford to indulge your whims ~ but is quite unnecessary. For a very long time it was only the people who DIDN’T have a shitload of money to spare who turned to DIY.(solar) It disturbs me that the new
    New-Age baby yuppies are throwing around multi-thousand-dollar figures as though they were talking about peanuts. Quite a lot of people don’t earn/spend more than 10 grand a year all-up.

    • Very eloquent comment thanks Jason. I think you’ve nailed what being a sell sufficient solar user very well. It’s that independence and a sort of peace of mind knowing that you produce (most of) your own energy. Hats off to you.

      I’d be interested to hear your opinion of microgrids though, particularly in the more remote areas of Australia. Are they the compromise between being attached to the Big Grid and self sufficiency?

      Rich

  5. john nielsen says

    Hi Rich,
    I have heard before “what do you do with the excess power”. I have a 6 kW system with batteries. When my battery bank voltage has reached the max setting and the panels produce more power than I use, then my micro switches controlled by a relay driver goes oc and thus so does my ssr until again the battery voltage reaches a predetermined by me set point.
    For $5 you can purchase a timer and for $20 a ssr with heat sink and between say 10 am and 4 pm push the extra power into a water heater which will be switched on and off automatically by control of the battery voltage. my water heater is only 125 L and 1800 w element.
    It is not rocket science.
    john Nielsen, Silkwood

  6. Hi Rich.
    Have given some thought to your question ~ it’s probably not as straightforward as it sounds ~ but have more or less concluded that I can’t see any point to microgrids, let alone advantage. Can you?

    However, I can see all the disadvantages of grid-connection. And worse: I have no problem getting into a shitfight with Origin/SPAusnet ~ but accusing my neighbours of not doing the right thing creates all sorts of other problems.
    eg. The simplest of questions, like who puts in/takes out more or less than their share etc. would require metering; and metering/keeping track would require a paid administration/bureaucracy. etc.

    Then of course you have the myriad questions which arise from the tech. side of the proposition. What technology do you use and who decides? Will your system/uses have to be approved/installed by an ‘Approved’ technician, etc….and who approves the approving technician: and takes responsibility when some bright spark (! pun! pun!) manages to send the community battery-bank into meltdown…….and….. But you get the picture.

    I’ve never been a fan of ‘compromise’ except as a very last resort. Even at it’s best nobody ends up getting what they want; and sooner or later that rankles. For the same reason I’m no advocate of communal decision-making ~ ie ‘democracy’. Marx called democracy the “Dictatorship of the Proletariate”, and in the best of worlds that’s true. But it’s a dictatorship nonetheless: somebody else decides what’s best for you, what you should have and what you must pay/contribute.

    Some time ago I posted my experience with a bunch of DIY-and-mutually-supportive-ferals/hippies in Northern NSW years ago. (I saw great things achieved; it’s one of my fondest memories! )
    A u-bewt development of the mutual-support ideal was the setting up of a co-op through which to obtain discounts for solar gear and other things. (Including a liquor licence! ~ the nearest pub was miles away and charged like any monopoly would.)
    But in time some of the more entrepreneurial yokels came up with some ‘improvements’ and the u-bewt co-op morphed into the Rainbow Power Company…..which further, directly and indirectly, morphed into an early version of the CEC.
    ….and completely fucked everything.

  7. Hi John.
    It sounds like rocket science is a bit like brain surgery:- simple when you know how. 😉
    In the interests of ‘keeping up’ I’d be keen to hear more about those sort of innovations, but am of an age when anything with no moving parts is not easy to grasp.
    Could you make things a bit more understandable: ie explaining such things as “micro-switches”, a “relay-driver” (particularly one which goes “oc”!) and a “ssr”…..??

    I also switch my power-use after the battery-banks have topped up, but do it manually with an ordinary power-board plugged into a suitably-sized inverter. (‘Mean-Well’ has proven reliable, efficient and not overpriced ~ with a 3-year warranty.)

    I use the ‘switched-over’ power to run a fridge/freezer, freezer and computer for most of the day. and/or stereo, small TV and fans ~ whatever. Thus ALL the grid-connected array production turns sunlight into money: alchemy at its best!
    My solar hot-water system (a length of poly-pipe in a box) keeps me and the dogs bathed.

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