• Shining success

    From the mega projects feeding into national grids to standalone micro-grids that power villages, solar technology is helping Africa light up the 600 million-plus people who do not have access to electricity

    Shining success

    According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), Africa could be home to more than 70 GW of solar PV capacity by 2030. And certainly, South Africa is leading the charge in this regard.

    South Africa’s Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement (REIPPP) programme, which has been running since 2011, has been lauded as one of the country’s most ambitious public-private partnerships to date. Under the REIPPP, South Africa’s Department of Energy has committed to 13 225 MW of renewable energy generation by 2025. While all renewables will play a role in this, many experts believe that solar will see the most success in achieving this renewable energy generation target.

    Earlier this year, one of South Africa’s biggest renewable energy projects, a ZAR12 billion solar farm built by French energy and services company ENGIE, went live. The solar plant, called Kathu, will provide clean energy to 179 000 houses in the Northern Cape community of the John Taolo Gaetsewe District. Kathu spans 4.5 km2 and has 384 000 mirrors. It can produce 100 MW of power and, thanks to its molten-salt storage system, can store 4.5 hours of thermal energy. This offsets the effect of irregular sunlight and also allows electricity to be produced after the sun sets.

    Kathu is not the first solar plant to use salt storage. ACWA Power’s Bokpoort concentrated solar power (CSP) plant was one of the first in Africa to utilise molten-salt tanks for thermal storage. Using this technology, the storage capacity of the plant is 9.3 hours.

    ACWA Power’s latest project is the Redstone CSP facility in the Northern Cape, which will reliably supply 100 MW of electricity to 210 000 South African homes during the evening peak-demand periods, and cumulatively dispatch 480 000 MWh per year. Redstone is capable of 12 hours of full-load energy storage and, says ACWA Power, is the first project-financed CSP plant in the world that deploys energy storage through a molten salt-central receiver. Redstone is also one of the largest investments in South Africa under the REIPPP.

    Other solar projects currently under construction or soon to commence include three from Juwi Renewable Energies, which will deliver 250 MW of solar PV to South Africa’s grid in the next few years. The three projects are the 86 MW Droogfontein 2 solar park near Kimberley in the Northern Cape, and in the North West province, the 86 MW Waterloo solar park close to Vryburg, and the 78 MW Bokamoso solar park in the vicinity of Leeudoringstad. Droogfontein 2 will, on completion, cover a 179 ha solar area comprising more than 260 000 solar panels on a tracker system. While all three projects have commenced construction, Droogfontein 2 is at the most advanced stage of building, though no completion date has yet been announced.

    Stephan Hansen, Juwi chief operating officer, says that the Droogfontein 2 project is an important milestone in the company’s strategy of implementing projects in South Africa, and that Juwi is ‘eagerly looking forward’ to bid window five of the REIPPP.

    ‘We think the political environment is very good and it’s creating a sustainable environment for us to be successful in the market,’ he says.

    Many experts believe that solar provides significant potential to ‘light up the continent’, especially considering the continent’s high irradiation levels.

    Beyond South African borders, the increasing number of solar projects in countries such as Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, Mali, Kenya, Gambia and Zambia, as well as a project in Burkina Faso, certainly demonstrate the continent’s growing interest in solar power, and the interest of private and development financiers to fund it.

    The World Sunshine Map shows that Africa receives, on average, more hours of sunshine than any other continent on Earth, creating huge potential for solar power.

    The continent is also following international trends in terms of decoupling buildings from national grids, with solar now a major driver of this movement. No longer a mere back-up power solution combined with complex diesel generator systems, roof-top solar projects are helping to alleviate already constrained grid networks on the continent. Developments in the field, in countries such as South Africa and Kenya, point to a future consisting of sophisticated flexible grid networks.

    While mega projects will remain a priority in bringing essential baseload power to any developing country’s energy mix, solar offers immense opportunities to narrow the division between energy roll-out and access to it. Solar can easily be deployed in areas that are remote and underdeveloped, and close to the source of demand through micro-generation.

    It is Africa’s lack of adequate, utility-scale grids that has bolstered the popularity of off-grid solutions. This is because, away from major cities, populations in Africa are widely dispersed. When coupled with infrastructure gaps, decentralised micro-grid or mini-grid solutions make a lot of sense. Research by the Africa Progress Panel found that without off-grid solar technologies and micro-grids, meeting the energy needs of the 600 million-plus Africans who are without will remain a pipe dream.

    Tanzania has seen great success with micro-grids, with 25% of all households that have access to electricity obtaining it from off-grid solar PV, according to the Ministry of Energy and Minerals. A recent report from law firm Hogan Lovells, titled ‘Africa and Renewables: Wholesale Change or Short term surge’, indicates it typically costs Tanzania’s national utility around US$2 300 to extend the main high-voltage grid to a rural off-grid household, whereas houses can be connected to a mini-grid for between US$500 and US$1 000.

    Taking advantage of Africa’s high levels of irradiation, countries are increasingly adding solar into the energy mix

    Some firms are taking micro-grids a step further, acting as micro-lenders. Nairobi-based M-KOPA Solar, for example, had by January 2018 connected more than 600 000 homes in Kenya and Uganda. The company charges a deposit for its basic power system, the 5 Solar Home System, which comprises an 8W solar panel, a control unit with a lithium battery, four LED bulbs, a rechargeable LED torch, a rechargeable FM USB radio, a five-in-one mobile-phone charger, and a custom charge cable. It then charges a nominal daily rate on top of this, for a period of 420 days. After completing the payment plan, the customer owns the unit outright. M-KOPA Solar estimates that current customers will make projected savings of US$450 million over the next four years.

    In Mali, Oolu Solar offers a similar pay-as-you go, off-grid solution. In fact, Hogan Lovells bestowed its Solar Innovation Award on the company in 2018, for this.

    In West Africa, the Ghana Energy Development and Access Project (GEDAP) has been running since 2007 and concludes later this year. This co-operative project, undertaken by the Ghanaian government, the World Bank and the AfDB, among others, sought to deploy at least 7 500 PV systems to schools, hospitals and off-grid communities. One of GEDAP’s pilot projects saw the installation of five solar mini-grids in isolated villages on islands created by the Volta lake and Volta river, and 10 000 residents of these fishing communities now have 24/7 access to electricity, their lives forever changed – for the better.

    Alex Harrison, partner at Hogan Lovells, believes that markets such as Africa are a great testing ground for micro-grid solutions. ‘I think micro-grids are a big part of the future,’ he says.

    ‘The market is looking at them very seriously to figure out how to develop them, monetise them and how to make them work, but I think it’s probably going to start at [a] smaller scale, [with] villages and community-led schemes instead becoming the way in which capital cities will source their power in the near future.’

    By Toni Muir
    Images: Gallo/Getty Images