• Sunny side up

    Cheaper technology is making it more attractive for African countries to take advantage of their solar abundance as a reliable, sustainable source of energy.

    Sunny side up

    Solar technology innovations are continuing to disrupt conventional thinking on energy planning. While mega projects remain a top priority for governments on the continent, according to Dinesh Buldoo, director of power at WSP Africa, ‘solar offers immense and unique opportunities to narrow the divide between energy roll out and access to energy’. This is because solar can more easily be deployed to areas that are remote and underdeveloped.

    Kittessa Roro, senior researcher of PV technology at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research’s Energy Centre,agrees that renewable energy presents a huge opportunity to address energy challenges. Referring specifically to South Africa, Roro says: ‘Technology cost reduction for renewables, combined with world-class solar and wind resources, has made renewables cost competitive with any alternative new-build generation capacity option today.’

    The Integrated Resource Plan 2010, released by the South African Department of Energy, intends to double power capacity by 2030,as well as significantly diversify the power mix. The energy share of renewables in domestic electricity generation will increase from less than 1% in 2010 to 9% by 2030, says Roro.‘A combination of drastically reduced prices of renewable energy systems and significantly increased electricity tariffs in the last five years make such systems cost competitive with traditional power generation in South Africa today,’ he says.

    Several solar energy projects are operational on a regional grid level under South Africa’s Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement (REIPPP) programme. One of the largest solar plants in the southern hemisphere is in South Africa, near De Aar, a small town in the Northern Cape. It generates enough electrical energy to meet the needs of 19 000 average South African households, supplied via the national grid.

    Other large, commercial-scale plants in operation include Juwi Renewable Energy’s Prieska solar farm, capable of producing 86 MW of energy, its 10.75 MW Konkoonsies solar farm, and its 10.75 MW Aries solar farm. Juwi MD Greg Austin says the company has procured another three solar projects with a combined total capacity of 250 MW that it intends building for an investor. Austin says the projects will be as big as what SouthAfrica currently allows. He also notes that, as a developer, Juwi is looking to build, sell and add a gigawatt of solar and wind projects to the country’s grid, . These hinge on the signing of several outstanding power purchase agreements, which he says is holding up the large-scale market in South Africa.

    Several other solar energy projects arein the pipeline. South African independent power producer BioTherm Energy is building two new solar PV plants: the Konkoonsies II solar PV facility near Pofadder in the Northern Cape, which will have a 75 MW capacity, and the Aggeneys solar PV project, which will have 45 MW of installed capacity.

    The US$880 million XiNa Solar One concentrated solar power (CSP) plant in Pofadder, developed by Abengoa, got under way in October last year. This 100 MW plant is expected to generate 400 GWh of energy per year – enough to provide electricity to 95 000 homes. The project will form one of Africa’s largest solar complexes, together with the company’s KaXu Solar One (also under construction) and Khi Solar One.

    Late last year, SOLA Future Energy designed and built a solar energy microgrid for Robben Island. The system comprises a solar PV farm, combined with a lithium-ion battery storage facility and smart controllers to ensure seamless electricity supply. While not nearly a commercial scale project, the microgrid is interesting in that it is the largest combined solar and lithium-ion storage microgrid system in South Africa. SOLA Future Energy CEO Dom Wills says the solar microgrid will reduce Robben Island’s fossil fuel consumption by 235 000 litres of diesel per annum, or 50% of previous usage. The result will be an 820-ton reduction in the island’s carbon emissions, along with a significant financial saving predicted for the microgrid’s 25-year lifespan. The island’s microgrid is a good example of how non-electrically connected Africa will be powered in the next 20 years, he says.

    While a whole host of renewable energy technologies are being explored and developed, solar provides significant potential to light up Africa, considering the continent’s high irradiation levels. ‘In fact, the World Sunshine Map highlights that Africa receives, on average, more hours of sunshine than any other continent on Earth,’ says Buldoo. ‘This presents huge potential, where solar farms across sub-Saharan Africa could be producing up to 10 000 GW of power.’

    Roro adds that the deployment of renewable energy microgrids presents a substantial opportunity for the electrification of sub-Saharan Africa. Communities as well as commerce and industry will be able to access reliable, sustainable and cost-effective energy via autonomous microgrids that complement utility-scale generation and transmission investments on the continent.

    The growing number of solar projects in countries including Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, Mali, Gambia, Kenya and Zambia, together with a proposed project in Burkina Faso, demonstrates Africa’s growing interest in solar power, and the interest of private and development financiers in funding these projects.

    In 2016, Ghana connected a 20 MW solar PV plant to its national grid. Developed by Chinese technology firm Beijing Xiaocheng and located about 70 km from Accra, it was, at the time, the largest PV installation in the West African nation. Meanwhile, in March 2017, the US Trade and Development Agency awarded a grant to Buipe Solar Limited, a Ghanaian company, in support of a feasibility study for a 20 MW solar PV plant in northern Ghana. The plant will be developed by BioTherm Energy.

    Also in 2016, Uganda launched East Africa’s largest privately funded solar power plant: a US$19 million affair with a nominal capacity of 10 MW, scalable to 20 MW and, in future, 30 MW. The plant can power more than 40 000 rural households in the eastern part of the country, where it is located.

    It is estimated that sub-Saharan Africa has the potential to produce up to 10 000 GW of power through solar energy

    BioTherm Energy has also been awarded preferred bidder status on four solar power projects in Zambia, and has secured two preferred bidder solar projects in Burkina Faso. CEO Jasandra Nyker says the company is actively developing greenfield opportunities in East and West Africa. ‘BioTherm’s focus on sub-Saharan Africa is equally important to its growth strategy in South Africa. Regionalised growth of renewable energy such as wind or solar offers significant economic development and assists in improving the local manufacturing and services value chain,’ she says.

    When it comes to opportunities for future growth in the sector, Buldoo believes these are plentiful. As several African countries continue to grapple with matching their power output and supply to demand, the continent has started to follow the international trend of decoupling buildings from national grids, with solar being a major driver of this movement, he says. ‘Progressing past being a mere back-up power solution combined with complex diesel generator systems, rooftop solar projects are helping to alleviate already constrained grid networks on the continent. Developments in the field in countries like South Africa and Kenya point to a future consisting of sophisticated flexible grid networks,’ says Buldoo.

    In such instances, large baseload projects are complemented by systems that bring power directly to the consumer without the need for investing in long transmission lines. That said, the distribution infrastructure at municipal level does still require bolstering, to get it to the point where it is ready to receive these technologies at a larger scale, he notes.

    Roro says that when one compares the renewable energy resource potential and the installed capacity of most African countries with that of mature markets in Europe and the US, it is difficult to conclude whether enough is being done to tap into Africa’s solar power potential. Numerous positive developments have, however, been witnessed in recent years, he says.

    ‘Most African countries have already implemented some type of renewable energy policy and have measurable targets for renewable energy deployment. Moreover, South Africa’s REIPPP process has proven so successful in helping meet the country’s energy demand that this success has been lauded globally, with many other African countries wishing to replicate it in future,’ he says.

    ‘Other notable initiatives include the Power Africa initiative, spearheaded by the US government, and Sustainable Energy for All, a partnership between the UN and the World Bank, which seeks to promote energy efficiency, increased global uptake of renewable energy and universal electricity access.’

    By Toni Muir
    Image: Gallo/Getty Images