Desert power: can Africa harness solar and build towards electrification?

Andrew Tunnicliffe 24 April 2019 (Last Updated April 12th, 2019 14:55)

Large-scale electrification has long been a challenge for Africa, but large and small projects are finally gaining momentum. Can the continent break free from its failure-prone past – the disaster of Desertec among others – with the Desert to Power Initiative, or will it be small-scale projects that lead the way? Andrew Tunnicliffe speaks with Renewables in Africa and Strathclyde University.

Desert power: can Africa harness solar and build towards electrification?
The Desert to Power Initiative, is an AfDB project aiming to bring power to 250 million people across the Sahel region via a network of solar power generation, producing 10GW by 2025.

With a population of around 1.3 billion, Africa is the second most populated continent in world, beaten only by Asia. According to analysis by the United Nations (UN), that figure is set to grow significantly in coming decades, with Africa accounting for more than half of global growth between now and 2050. Despite this, just a few years ago about 600 million people had no access to an electricity supply on the continent, according to 2014 figures released by the World Bank.

“The needs in Africa are high and we still have a long way to go,” said African Development Bank (AfDB) president and former Minister of Agriculture and Rural Development in Nigeria, Akinwumi Adesina, at a meeting of the bank’s governors in 2018.

His views are shared by Magdalena Seol, a long-time advocate for economic growth based on low carbon economies. “A lack of energy remains as a significant impediment to Africa’s economic and social development,” he said.

Africa’s challenging environment

“Africa faces three challenges,” says Tony Tiyou, founder of consultancy Renewables in Africa (RiA). The first is a matter of legacy: “Historically, power supply is built around fossil fuel sources that represent more than 70% of generated power. Rapidly improving energy access while decarbonising the sector is certainly a challenge.” Another is investment, with as much as $30bn required annually to “exploit the continent’s renewable energy potential”.

Finally, a major skills shortage continues to threaten development as the 2019 Global Energy Talent Index reported, according to Tiyou.

The report, published by Energy Jobline and Airswift, warned of an impending talent crisis across the continent, with almost half of those questioned (46%) suggesting there is a looming emergency, if it hasn’t already begun.

Desert to Power Initiative

The news couldn’t be more worrying given the current ambitions of Africa’s leaders and decision makers to drive the renewable sector forward. Seol has acted as an adviser to the Desert to Power Initiative, an AfDB project to bring power to 250 million people across the Sahel region via a network of solar power generation, producing 10GW by 2025. “Energy is the foundation of human living – our entire system depends on it. For Africa right now, providing and securing sustainable energy is the backbone of its economic growth,” said Seol.

The project will cover Senegal, Nigeria, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Chad, Sudan, Ethiopia, Djibouti and Eritrea, collectively Sahel. According to AfDB, the burden of the cost of climate change adaption will weigh heaviest on Africa, to the detriment of agriculture, forestry, healthcare and water supply.

The initiative kicked off with the so-called Yeleen Rural Electrification Project, a multi-million dollar investment by AfDB, the European Union (EU) and Green Climate Fund (GCF) in Burkina Faso. It uses decentralised photovoltaic {PV) solar systems to generate 22.6MW through a network of 100 mini power plants, or mini-grids, and turnkey units. Together they supply up to 100,000 households for 16 hours a day.

Tiyou warns that Desertec should be viewed as a lesson learning exercise for the continent. “If the Bank is already tackling, with some success, the money issue, the question of political risk would clearly need to be properly mitigated,” he says.

His comments were somewhat pointed given Desertec was initiated to use solar power from the Sahara and export it to Europe. It “crashed and burned” after Europe said it was able to generate enough renewable power itself.

“With the failure of previous mammoth projects like Desertec, I would like to think key stakeholders driving the project, especially the AfDB, are better prepared. Countries of the region are more open and willing the exploit the solar source,” he says.

Are microgrids the answer?

Parts of Africa are already benefitting from solar projects on a smaller scale, such as Strathclyde University’s Sustainable Off-Grid Electrification of Rural Villages (SOGERV). With £600,000 in funding from the Scottish Government, the initiative brought power to villages in Chikwawa, a remote district in Malawi.

The villages are supplied by solar power through four hubs, community energy providers which own and operate the equipment including battery chargers and power connections. It has allowed residents to establish new businesses, benefitting themselves and ultimately the local economy.

“Off-grid electricity is a growing sector in Malawi, with numerous initiatives focusing on mini-grid deployments and community energy schemes. Despite the high impact, many of these projects have fallen short of sustainability expectations,” says Aran Eales of the project team, something the project aims to address.

“Working in four communities SOGERV established sustainable energy businesses, testing alternative business models and establishing long-term support structures,” he adds.

Following its success, Eales and his colleagues have embarked on another initiative to deploy small, village level microgrids. “A PV array with battery storage and power electronics forms the hub of the grid, with an AC, low voltage distribution grid to nearby houses and small businesses,” explains project lead Professor Stuart Galloway.

It isn’t without its challenges, as Galloway explains: “The challenges arise primarily from the uncertainties of the ability and willingness to pay of local customers, determining customer load profiles and potential demand growth.”

Africa and its people must take the lead

Both projects develop a social enterprise asset management model and establish sustainable standalone businesses. “Ultimately, our goal is that social enterprises not only manage and monitor the microgrids deployed, but grow their asset base of decentralised energy infrastructure and establish successful businesses that drive forward energy access in Malawi,” comments Damien Frame, a research fellow on the team.

It seems the continent has great potential despite the obvious challenges. But that potential cannot be unlocked without significant human and financial investment. “So far the bank has been successful in mobilising the international community for their support,” says Tiyou.

“However, what is crucial is how the private sector and local communities will be associated to the initiative. We also need to educate local people on the benefit of renewable energy on multiple aspects of their life, like health and education.” Finally, he says, local entrepreneurs and importantly African billionaires need to contribute much more.

Whether Desert to Power proves a success or is laid to rest in the same way some have argued Desertec was, with large-scale projects clearly taking shape and smaller ones being established, Africa and its people might have renewed hope they are receiving the attention they so desperately need – at least for now.