Southern African News Features                                           SANF 09 No 12, July 2009
Time for Africa to harness solar energy
by Kizito Sikuka

Recent pronouncements by a consortium of German companies to build a US$555.3 billion solar power project in Africa to provide electricity to European households should send a warning shot to the region and encourage it to invest in solar energy.

Although the project is a major development for Africa, the continent is likely not to benefit much from it as the bulk of the energy to be produced would be transmitted back to Germany for use by Europeans families.

Rather, Africa must see the development as a wake up call for it to channel more resources towards the exploitation of solar power to help the region meet its growing demand for energy.

The interest by the Germany companies, led by the world’s largest reinsurer Munich Re, to tap solar energy in Africa shows the huge potential Africa has for solar energy.

The African continent is hugely endowed with sunshine throughout the year, but little has been done to harness the power. Solar power is a reliable and clean form of energy as it does not pollute the environment compared to other forms of energy.

This is despite the huge demand for energy on the continent. In southern Africa alone, the region’s combined installed electricity generation capacity stood at 55,927MW as of April 2009 against an available capacity of 48,649MW, representing a deficit of 7,278MW.

But, adequate investment in solar and other renewable energy sources such as wind can help the region boost its supplies as well as meet its demand.

Said a Munich Re official at the US$555.3 billion solar power project announcement: "This is not some far-off vision, but technologically attractive and also achievable," adding that the consortium would meet in July to finalise the initiative expected to come into force in the next three years.

More companies from across Europe have since expressed an interest in taking part in the world’s largest solar project named Desertec.

The project would mainly focus on North Africa, making it easy for the transmission of electricity to Europe via direct current high voltage network buried under the Mediterranean.

Preliminary projections claim that if about 0.3 percent of the Sahara was covered with solar panels, it would power the entire European continent. If up to one percent of the desert was covered, it could power the entire world.

Therefore, experts say, Africa cannot just wait while others implement such noble initiatives but must also take the lead to explore its solar energy.

Plans by Botswana to build a 200MW solar plant are an example that can be supported and encouraged so that other countries in Africa follow suit.

The 200MW solar plant in Botswana has the capacity to address most of the energy needs of the southern African country as its national power consumption needs stand at just about 450MW.

According to the African Development Bank (AfDB), the continent could become a "gold mine" for renewable energy due to the abundant solar and wind resources that are now hugely sought after by international investors in their quest for a new clean energy frontier.

However, the development of this industry has been made difficult by lack of financial resources and poor infrastructure to tap the resource.

To address some of these pertinent challenges, Africa can do it the Madagascan way so people can benefit from its solar resource.

The island nation, which is the fourth largest island in the world, a few years ago embarked on a small scale exercise to harness its solar and provide power to the majority of its rural population, which is not connected to the national electricity grid.

Rural clinics and hospitals were equipped with solar technologies such as small solar panels to produce their own electricity and in the process enabling them to store vital vaccines and other medicines.

Prior to this development, patients were expected to bring their own candles to be attended to during the night.

Given the cost involved, it is no wonder experts are urging Africa to start with smaller solar projects that are cheaper to ensure power is available to the majority of its people while bigger projects can be done in partnership with willing investors.

Southern African News Features offers a reliable source of regional information and analysis on the Southern African Development Community, and is provided as a service to the SADC region.

This article may be reproduced with credit to the author and publisher.

SANF is produced by the Southern African Research and Documentation Centre (SARDC), which has monitored regional developments since 1985

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