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Could Africa be the global star in solar power?

This author no longer works for DNV GL.

The trade press has recently reported a number of large (> 50 MWp) renewable energy projects in Africa. As a company at the forefront of Africa’s energy transition, we at DNV GL are excited to see so many of the solar and wind projects that we have been involved with now coming on line. Current photovoltaic (PV) projects in Africa have a total potential capacity of over 11 GW. And we firmly believe this is just the start. We are convinced Africa has all the ingredients to become a world leader in renewable energy—and especially solar.

A land of promise
Why do I say that? One reason is the continent’s economic situation. The last decade has seen enormous GDP growth, which has driven soaring demand for energy. And we can expect demand to continue to grow as, for many countries, the economic predictions for the next ten years are even more promising.

In response to that demand, governments across the continent are implementing ambitious plans to bring reliable and durable electricity solutions to more people. Delivering affordable electricity, particularly in rural areas, will support further economic development—creating a “virtuous circle” where economic growth drives electrification which drives further economic growth and so on.

That brings me to the second factor that could drive a boom in African solar power: cost. Photovoltaic technologies have matured to the point that they are becoming cost-competitive with traditional generation options—and even below the price of utility or fossil fuel based power in many locations. This is particularly true in Africa, much of which is naturally rich in the one resource you need for reliable solar power: predictable sunshine. This makes solar an attractive power proposition for many African countries, especially those that don’t have oil and gas reserves.

What’s more, the speed of project development and deployment in many African countries is astonishing. Solar power is quick to install and works on any scale, but to see multiple

250+ MW projects being completed in this decade is amazing.

Infrastructure: obstacle or opportunity?
Currently, Africa lacks an extensive national grid network for the transmission and distribution (T&D) of electricity. Some people point to this as a major challenge for the African energy sector. But I see it as a huge opportunity.  The nature of solar resource allows for it to be deployed in a distributed fashion across the region.  Connecting into smaller local distribution grids can be very effective when managed and planned properly.

Building a sustainable future that improves the quality of life for people across Africa means creating an electricity system that makes both economic and environmental sense. And that means a broad mix of energy generation options with renewables like wind and solar very much to the fore. To enable that, we need a 21st Century electricity network. One that can carry energy from many sources, enables energy trading between nations and includes storage solutions and smart systems.

These requirements are the same everywhere in the world. But Africa’s lack of existing infrastructure means it doesn’t have to deal with issues around legacy technologies and equipment. Here we’re starting with a clean slate and don’t have to worry about the compromises and delays involved in retro-fitting an existing system.

Finding the money
Of course, there are some significant challenges to be faced in bringing widespread solar energy to Africa. And DNV GL is partnering with the African energy industry to address them.

One such local challenge is the complexity of accessing funding for projects in Africa. Many international banks are unwilling to lend to African projects. They don’t see Africa as a key market, and are put off by exchange rate volatility and reports of corruption. As a result, African renewable energy projects typically need to work with either local banks or development agencies such as the Agence Française de Développement (AFD), the KfW or the World Bank. The fact that solar photovoltaic generation has reached grid parity price makes it an attractive investment.  African financiers can leverage for the experience in other parts of the world to make the process as efficient as possible and manage risks appropriately. DNV GL has been involved in the technical support of financing almost 3,000 solar projects globally.

Obtaining funding from these sources brings its own constraints. For example, a strong power purchase agreement (PPA) and interconnection agreement are usually required to limit project risks. With over 30 years’ experience in solar, DNV GL can help projects ensure they meet the requirements for working with these organisations.

Securing the supply
Ensuring a stable and reliable supply is also a major challenge. A reliable network is built on reliable components. And the most effective way to ensure components will be reliable is through independent, standards-based certification and technical due diligence to minimise and mitigate risk. Moreover, the specific characteristics of renewable energy sources must be factored into the design of generation projects and the T&D infrastructure. Advanced grid and energy storage system modelling software can help here; ensuring renewable energy projects complement the grid, rather than be a burden to it.

A bright future
At DNV GL, we’ve been involved in many of the most innovative projects to tackle Africa’s energy deficit—including some of those that have been making the headlines recently. For example, we advised the Kenya Electricity Transmission Company (KETRACO) on the 400 kV transmission line for its 300 MW Lake Turkana wind farm. We have worked in Egypt on the feasibility studies for multiple multi-megawatt PV projects. And we’re playing a crucial role in the ongoing success of South Africa’s strategy to deliver 8.4 GW of PV and 1.2 GW of concentrated solar power (CSP) generation by 2030.

That’s why we believe Africa has the potential to show the world that a clean, intelligent, reliable and sustainable energy system can exist in this century. These projects are the first steps towards realising that potential. They show solar power—and renewable energy in general—can be a game changer in Africa’s energy mix and drive sustainable development.

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