Re-energising Africa

Researchers claim that power from the sun could supply 20 percent of energy worldwide by 2027 as solar panel prices are expected to continue to fall 10 percent each year. Past experience suggests that energy scenarios often fail to predict the full extent of solar’s rapid growth, so it’s possible that 20 percent could be rather conservative. This is particularly true in countries that want to rapidly expand their electricity system, as is the case in some African countries, where solar can affordably provide energy where it was previously not supplied at all. Solarcentury’s East Africa Director, Guy Lawrence says the impending rise of storage technologies also makes the case for solar, since devices such as batteries can maximise the solar investment and make clean solar electricity available after dark.

Africa Outlook (AfO): What factors are causing the price of solar panels to fall so rapidly?

Guy Lawrence (GL): Firstly, capacity expansion is perhaps the most significant reason for the 10 percent price fall year-on-year; as global PV capacity has grown every quarter for a sustained period, this additional volume drives down price. With increased capacity and new production lines, the opportunity to install more automated processes increases the production rate and lowers the cost of module production.

Secondly, the falling cost of silicon is also helping to lower the cost of solar, and other technological improvements are pushing down prices. Moreover, improved cell efficiency lowers the cost-per-watt of all other costs. For example, as the standard module efficiency has improved over the past two years or so, costs have fallen. 

Lastly, without government subsidies for solar, the industry has to focus on cost. The presence of more large bankable, mature PV companies makes today’s solar market more competitive, which also helps to lower costs.

AfO: How do you think this will affect Africa’s solar industry specifically in the next five-10 years?

GL: Growing economies need power. Falling solar prices mean that solar is now economically viable without subsidies across much of Africa. Solar is also proven to complement the grid and diesel generators. In the next five-10 years it will become increasingly commonplace for residential and commercial customers to purchase solar and implement storage solutions to reduce and stabilise energy bills. Similarly, grid-connected solar farms owned by power companies are to become increasingly common; a trend which can be seen across Dubai, Chile and the UK among other countries.

One of the most exciting opportunities for solar and storage in Africa is the fact that businesses can use it to reduce energy bills; a benefit that looks after the bottom-line and saves money, which can then be spent elsewhere.

AfO: What part of the continent has the most potential for solar energy and why?

GL: Africa’s plentiful sunshine hours thanks to its equatorial location make it well suited to solar PV. The two major areas with the highest annual average sunshine duration are the central and eastern Sahara Desert; covering vast, mainly desert countries such as Egypt, Sudan, Libya, Chad, and Niger. The largest sun-baked region in the world – with more than 3,000 hours of sunshine annually – is North Africa.

Solar can be quickly deployed and has a predictable output since it can supply energy as long as there is daylight. Solar is cost-competitive with grid prices in much of sub-Saharan Africa. Where diesel generators are in use, solar can be easily integrated to save fuel and further reduce bills. This is an increasingly common application for solar.

Falling storage prices are creating opportunities for solar projects with integrated storage capacities. This setup is competitive in Equatorial Africa where sunshine hours are high and where there is a heavy reliance on diesel generators.

AfO: Tell me more about Solarcentury’s project (icipe) and how solar storage systems are having an impact in Africa’s remote/rural areas?

GL: In July, 2016 Solarcentury will undertake the installation of three solar PV plants with a total capacity of 1154kWp at the Nairobi-based International Centre of Insect Physiology and Ecology (icipe).

Two solar roof systems combined with a carport system will be built at the icipe Duduville Campus in Nairobi. The third solar roof system will be built at the icipe Thomas Odhiambo Campus, in western Kenya, which will be combined with a storage element. The storage will provide an alternative backup energy supply to the expensive diesel generators and enable solar electricity to be consumed around-the-clock.

Beyond this particular system, customers across the continent can benefit from solar (with or without storage) to reduce energy bills. With storage, reliability of power can be improved and peak pricing can be avoided under some circumstances. The latest storage systems have long service lives and high energy density. Consumers can be less reliant on an intermittent grid or expensive diesel generators and more dependent on solar.

When the grid fails, businesses want immediate and seamless backup power. Adding storage to a solar system gives instant and reliable backup in the absence of grid energy and reduces reliance on expensive diesel generators.

For rural and remote areas with no grid power, solar can be a vital source of electricity during daylight hours, helping to power factories, shops, homes and public buildings. Adding storage means batteries can be charged during daylight hours, ready for use after dark so people can benefit from solar at night.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) has predicted that solar energy could be the top source of electricity by 2050, generating up to 16 percent of the world’s electricity. Plummeting costs of equipment and silicon are key reasons for this.

AfO: How do you hope to see solar and solar storage evolve in response to global and continental trends?

GL: Storage has historically been considered too expensive or too short lived. However, a mass market for reliable batteries has been created by mobile phones, consumer electronics and electric vehicles.

These technological developments are also spreading to the power industry and storage products – from Tesla’s Powerwall to utility-scale battery storage – are increasingly common, and they are evolving quickly. The batteries in our phones last two-three years and batteries for utility-scale systems can have a warranty of up to 10 years, with some cycled nearly 100,000 times. Storage technology is now mature and fit for market adoption and it is now a misconception that ‘batteries do not last’.

To understand storage is to understand its flexibility. It means more solar energy can be installed while simultaneously allowing diesel generators to be switched off, or run more efficiently. This is critical for African countries that are currently relying on diesel for backup power, or indeed diesel 24-seven in the absence of grid power.

See the full article and more in the latest issue of Africa Outlook magazine here