Africa leapfrogging power lines: rise of solar energy

With the twenty-second United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP22) opening on 7 November 2016 and running until 18 November 2016 the focus of world leaders and national governments will once again be on the critical issue of climate change. Many discussions will be had about how best nations can adopt policies that can ensure the details of the Paris Agreement are met and that emissions are reduced faster, and by a greater amount, than initially pledged. However, one way in which thousands are already benefitting from – particularly in Africa, the continent that is hosting the latest round of United Nations climate change negotiations – is from the uptake and use of off-grid solar power lighting and charging kits. A recent Economist article entitled ‘Africa Unplugged’ reports that “small-scale solar power is surging ahead.” 

Connecting people and households to formal electricity networks is an expensive exercise. Across Africa, two in every three people have no power. The Africa Progress Panel, a group headed by former United Nations General Secretary Kofi Annan estimates that in excess of 600 million people are not connected, and in order for them to become so, the investment in electricity infrastructure would have to increase from the current $8 billion a year to $55 billion a year. At present, this is “unrealistic” as described by The Economist and if current trends are continued this would not occur until the year 2080. As a result, Africans, often without the help and support of their governments, are looking for alternative option and small-scale, off-grid power systems presents one such alternative solution. 

At their current rate of growth, the uptake of such systems which people and families can use to light a room, charge a smart phone and listen to the radio, “will within a few years outstrip the rate at which people are being connected to the grid.” In using such systems, they are “leapfrogging power lines” in a similar manner to the way in which many Africans leapfrogged land-line telephone networks and helping to improve livelihoods for many. Using off-grid systems can result in improved educational opportunities and health benefits, income generating opportunities and financial savings incurred by not having to purchase other energy sources (such as paraffin and/or candles). Indeed, it is estimated that 600,000 households across Africa have already benefited. 

Described as “an industry that barely existed a few years ago” its growth has been remarkable and the industry has been helped by three major developments. Firstly, since 2010 the cost of solar panels has fallen by around 80% making them much affordable to the poor. The second has been the design an introduction of innovative payment solutions. ‘Pay-as-you-go’ payment models have been developed across many African markets and these have often been directly connected to mobile phone networks enabling customers to use mobile money to pay for their systems. Default rates have been very low partly because families can use money saved on other energy sources to pay off their loans. The final development has been in the design and manufacture of devices that use less electricity. These can include LED light bulbs as well as phones, televisions, fans and radios.    

While the uptake and use of off-grid solar systems should definitely be considered a promising development, it will not magically solve all of Africa’s electricity connectivity and infrastructure problems. For example, big businesses and industries will still require more intensive traditional and reliable power sources in order to grow and develop. Furthermore, companies, such as M-Kopa, Off Grid Electric, BBoxx, Azuri Technologies and others are also recognising that off-grid systems can be offered and supplied in a commercially viable, rather than purely charitable way. The Economist warns that government policymakers should “encourage the competition that is lifting the burden of rural electrification from the state while allowing it to concentrate its investment in improving power supplies in those areas where it can be used to power industrial growth.” Policy makers, businesses, NGOs present at the COP22 in Marrakech could also do well to heed this advice.

Written by Ken Fullerton