Both the decreased costs and the technologic progress contribute to the rise of solar energy; if Africa aims at keeping on boosting sustainable development, then it needs to ensure access to energy for its entire population.
Africa hosts 13% of the total world population; notwithstanding, it only accounts for 4% of world energy consumption. And for good reason. Because if on the one hand 98% of North African people – according to the data provided by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) in its latest report titled Africa 2030 – have electricity, on the other hand, only 47% and 43% of people in West and South Africa have it. In Central and East Africa the situation is even worse, with rates sinking respectively to 25% and 23%.
To overcome the shortage of electrical capabilities, the African continent must set itself the task of ensuring a reliable, sustainable and affordable access to energy for its entire population, in compliance with goal n.7 of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), adopted by the United Nations in 2015. All the more so because Africa’s energy demand is expected to rise up to 80% by the year 2040.
Yet, most of the African countries are endowed with enough renewable resources to meet the future electricity demand, thus contributing to the local economic development. In particular, the African potential capacity in solar power generation exceeds the future domestic consumption in terms of the extent, due to the vast resources that Africa owns in this field.
So far, solar power generation has played only a marginal role in the African energy system. However, solar energy is gaining ground in several African countries; this happens for a very simple reason: most of the African areas can count on solar exposure levels which are unique in the world (2000 KWh per square metre and per year), with an average of 320 sunny days per year.
From this particular point of view, the regions which are best exposed to sun are located along the Sahara Desert and in South Africa, considering the sunlight level of 2500 KW/m2; however, Sahelian and tropical regions also enjoy a remarkable exposure to sun.
Solar power generation has been progressively developing in Africa with a cumulative installed capacity of 1334 MW in 2014, being ten times higher than in 2009 (127 MW).
South Africa alone, at the head of this rapid ascent, has contributed to the African capacities with almost 780 MW between 2013 and 2014.
Senegal invested in this field too: it built a power plant of 30 MW in Meouane, following the example of Zambia (100 MW), Burkina Faso (53 MW), and Morocco (about 500 MW).
At the end of this process, by 2040, the Sub-Saharan region will increase from a current capacity of about 6 GW to 45 GW. Moreover, according to the report Africa Energy Outlook, issued by the International Energy Agency (IEA), solar power – good for a wide range of domestic uses, going from house lightening systems to kitchen uses by way of hot water – will represent respectively 12% and 6% of total electricity capacities and supplies.
Furthermore, this sustainable electricity is about to become one of the most profitable resources because of the collapse in the price of solar panels; in fact, their cost has already decreased of 62% since 2009 and, according to the estimates of IRENA, it is expected to decrease another 40% in the next ten years.
At the moment, a variety of projects are underway, a number of which are directly connected to national grids, and others are superior to 150 MW (e.g. in Namibia, South Africa and Ghana). The diversity of all the possible plants goes from individual kits – allowing to provide the amount of electricity required by a single household – to the implementation of mini-grids for the entire supply of small communities.
Above all, this technology is uninterruptedly progressing for multiple uses and could prove decisive for the development of remote rural areas.
Altogether we remark the appearance of new products capable of attenuate the infrastructural backwardness that still affects Africa; such products include entirely autonomous solutions based on solar power, e.g. the photovoltaic power systems for the benefit of community services. They would be required to provide sufficient energy to cover the supplies of a school, a health clinic, a police station, or other rural infrastructures; at the same time, they would ensure both a reasonable electric load growth and a reasonable management of said services.
Thanks to the renewed interest shown by large companies on this subject, far from being a mirage shimmering in the distance, the solar power revolution only has to start to make a difference on the continent.