Solar Energy Coming to Africa The revolution is underway

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WASHINGTON – A few months ago, a photograph of a little Asian child sitting next to a city lamp post, trying to do his homework there because of no electricity at home, went around the world. Think of the hardships of poverty. And think of the resilience of this little child, trying to overcome adversity with a little bit of ingenuity.

Think darkness 

Yes, lack of electricity in the home is a huge, in fact horrible problem. But there is worse. Much worse. Think of no electricity in the home –and no lamp posts. Think about complete darkness at night because your village or township is not connected to any grid. And you are not alone. Millions of others are in the same conditions.

Most of Africa has no electricity 

And where does all this happen? Well, in many places in Asia. But the worst of the worst is in Africa. While statistics vary from country to country, on average, well over 50% of all Africans have no electricity whatsoever. Not in the home. Not in the streets. We are talking nothing. Zero. In sub-Saharan Africa, if you leave out a few cities where there is electricity (even if unreliable), about 70% of rural people have nothing.

No take-off 

Until the collapse of commodity prices, the buzz was that Africa was finally emerging. Growth rates of about 7% on average in sub-Saharan Africa seemed to indicate an economic take-off.

Well, not so. Not even close. Growth was driven by the China-induced high demand for commodities. This new demand drove prices up. And this meant more money coming into Africa, (and beyond: think Brazil, Chile, Argentina, Indonesia, Canada and Australia). Unfortunately, though, the new money was not invested wisely to modernize countries. In many instances it was used to buy expensive imports.

Well, now the party is over. The Chinese boom ended, and commodity prices have collapsed. African currencies have lost altitude. In some cases they lost 30% or even 50% against the US dollar. And all the economic diversification strategies discussed, and in some cases approved at the highest level, have yet to be implemented.

Nothing without power 

Alright. Things do not look great in Africa. But what about electricity, or lack thereof? It is obvious that not much can be done to grow these economies, unless affordable and reliable electricity can be produced and distributed on a much larger scale. It is just impossible to think of any economic development model worth its name without electricity.

Is solar coming? 

And here there is the proverbial ray of hope. After many false starts, it seems that solar power may contribute to solve this systemic power deficiency problem in a significant way.

Many countries in sub-Saharan Africa have plenty of sunshine almost all year round. Therefore they are ideal for solar power installations.

Until yesterday, however, the critical obstacle was price. It was just too expensive to build and maintain solar power plants in Africa. There could be no way to make money.

Better and cheaper 

But now it is different. Solar technologies have become more sophisticated, more resilient, and much cheaper. Therefore, it is beginning to make sense to install solar in Africa.

The additional advantage represented by solar is that solar solutions now can be customized. You do not need a large investment in a huge plant. You can bring the panels directly to the village, to the individual dwelling. Likewise, no need for sometimes prohibitively expensive transmission lines.

New companies 

For example, Off-Grid Electric (www.offgrid-electric.com) is a US company that drew from the experience of the growing solar panels business in the US to create a model that could work in Africa. Right now it is operating in Tanzania and Rwanda, in East Africa. Off-Grid Electric offers affordable products and simplified payment systems that allow even the poor to access its technology. And, as the company’s name says, it is all “off-grid”. No need to wait for transmission lines to get power.

Can the poor pay? Yes, even the poor spend money on fuels. They use charcoal to cook, kerosene and other fuels to power very inefficient (and dangerous) lamps. These traditional tools are rudimentary and expensive. It turns out that solar is better and cheaper. A payment system customized to the ability to pay allows this business to grow.

Revolution 

Needless to say, the difference between having zero electricity and having it all the time, is truly revolutionary. You can have light at night. You can read, do homework. You can recharge mobile phones, you can have power for tools and appliances, and more. 

Of course, these type of scaled-down, village level applications are not designed for large industrial use. Those would require bigger plants. But, if indeed solar is becoming cheaper, it will be possible to finance larger plants that are cost-competitive vis-a-vis conventional fossil fuels. 

A new era 

Have we entered a new era? I dare say, yes we have.

Africa’s electricity shortage was mostly about high cost, and very poor end users who could not afford expensive service. Now we are able to bring affordable power directly to them, without huge up front investment in new plants, and equally large distribution costs, due to the need to create new transmission lines.

Yes, with electricity life in the village is going to be completely different.

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