Crunch time for solar energy in West Africa

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To say that solar in Sub-Saharan Africa has yet to take off to any extent outside of South Africa would not be a particularly controversial statement. With a few notable exceptions, the deployment of PV technology at any kind of scale has yet to happen in a part of the world that arguably has both the most potential for it and the most to gain from it.

The reasons for this are well rehearsed. At a government level, a general lack of awareness of what solar can offer means that only a handful of countries have in place feed-in tariffs or similar policy levers to begin the process of market building.

Vested interests are another significant obstacle. Although the economics of solar versus the increasingly costly diesel generation that provides much of the region’s power are becoming more attractive by the day, those who supply the diesel will hold significant sway in political circles. The prospect of their lucrative status quo shifting to a model where customers have control of their own power generation is no doubt something the fossil fuel magnates will be pushing hard against.

And even where the political battle has been largely won, there is no guarantee that a market will follow. In Kenya, for example, a feed-in tariff has been in place for renewables since 2012 and although interest has been high, not one project has yet been completed under the programme. One developer there last year said this was because the FiT on offer was insufficient to make projects financially viable.

The difficulties developers face in making projects work are closely linked to another of Sub-Saharan Africa’s problems, namely the availability of finance. Investors are still reluctant to put capital into projects where the technology is unfamiliar. South Africa is a good example of how a well devised and executed national procurement programme can break the Catch-22 investment deadlock solar faces in new markets, but the reality is that solar in countries with lower credit ratings than South Africa will struggle until someone builds a project and shows it can work.

The tide is slowly beginning to turn, however. Rwanda saw its first utility-scale PV project switched on earlier this year and the same team behind that project is now looking at a similar project in neighbouring Burundi. Beyond government-backed utility-scale projects, distributed PV projects, powering farming, commercial and light industrial enterprises are making steady headway, offering business owners the promise of breaking their dependence on expensive fossil fuel-based generation.

In West Africa, there is a similar sense of optimism that solar’s time is nigh. In Ghana, a project billed as the continent’s largest, the 155MW Nzema plant, is in the works. The recent election of a new president in Nigeria appears to have instilled a sense of optimism that solar could soon find a foothold in the sub-region’s largest economy. A number of other countries in West Africa are also known to be on the hit-list for foreign private power investors looking for new opportunities, including Burkina Faso, Mali, Ivory Coast and Senegal.

Clearly, there is some way to go before that promise translates into reality. What could ultimately tip the balance though is the sheer weight of public demand and the pressure that places on politicians to deliver.

Ghana is an interesting example of this process in action. The country is currently experiencing severe power shortages, necessitating load shedding of up to 650MW during peak periods, according to local press reports. Last week, Ghana’s president, John Dramani Mahama, reportedly said he would have the country’s power minister, Kwabena Donkor, removed from his post unless he can get the crisis under control. No doubt there is an element of sabre rattling here by Mahama ahead of next year’s presidential election in Ghana, but it’s also a sign of the extent to which energy has become an issue of political accountability in West Africa. Solar may not offer the quick fix needed to this particular short-term problem, but over the longer term it could be the answer under-pressure politicians need to bring an end to rolling power blackouts.

Appropriately, given Ghana’s current problems, its capital Accra is about to host the two-day Solar & Off-Grid Renewbales West Africa conference kicking off tomorrow.

Organised by PV Tech’s publisher, Solar Media, the event offers a timely forum for the discussion of the opportunities and challenges for solar and other renewables in the region. Delegates will have the opportunity to hear from top-level speakers drawn from politics, regulation and industry about what the future holds for solar in a region that could benefit so much from it. Ghana's Ministry of Energy, Grid Company and Energy Commission will all be represented at the event.

In PV Tech’s analysis last week of the possible consequences for solar of the recent peaceful presidential election in Nigeria, one observer said former military dictator Muhammadu Buhari’s victory was a good omen for solar not just in Nigeria but in West Africa more broadly.

To be sure, there is little shortage of goodwill for PV and its abilities to sate the region’s hunger for power. Now comes the hard work to turn that positive sentiment into the political action that will ultimately decide whether solar is given a fair chance to live up to its potential in West Africa.

To find out more about attending Solar & Off-Grid Renewables West Africa click here.

Solar irradiance map of Africa. Image: GeoModel Solar via Wikimedia Commons.
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