Solar energy in Africa

Sahara Desert

The debate about Solar energy both pros and cons have been discussed extensively, especially when a whole new industry is emerging that is drawing intense competition between China, U.S. and Europe.  What i want to look at, discuss is the opportunity that this is a great time for Africa as a whole to jump on to the modernization of energy in the 21st century and leap-frog certain aspects and downsides of industrialization. Which the main disadvantages are environmental degradation.

African countries, blessed with sunlight all year round, are tapping this free and clean energy source to light up remote and isolated homes that have no immediate hope of linking to their national electricity grid.  As you can see from the reporting by Deutschewellenglish progress is being made.

Electrifying rural areas poses unique challenges for African governments. Remote and scattered, rural homes, unlike homes in urban areas, are costly and often impractical to connect to the grid. Under the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), countries are seeking innovative alternatives to give rural families efficient means to cook their food and light their homes. Stand-alone sources of energy, such as solar, wind and mini-hydro generators, can help fill the gap.

NEPAD, Africa’s development blueprint, recognizes that to achieve the desired social and economic prosperity, countries must boost access to cheaper and reliable energy. Excluding South Africa and Egypt, no more than 20 per cent (and in some countries as few as 5 per cent) of Africans have electricity. This figure falls to an average of 2 per cent in rural areas where the majority of Africans live — a far cry from the 35 per cent consumption level, or more, African leaders wish to achieve.

Africa can gain a lot by embracing this opportunity. Came across a time article that confirmed what i been thinking on, but couldn’t really find a reputable source that stated the case well in a short reading.

For years the Sahara has been regarded by many Europeans as a terra incognita of little economic value or importance. But this perception may be headed for a drastic overhaul. Politicians and scientists on both sides of the Med are beginning to focus on the Sahara’s potential to power Europe for centuries to come. These people believe the 3.32 million-sq.-mi. (8.6 million sq km) desert’s true worth lies in the very thing long regarded as its biggest liability: its arid emptiness. Some patches of the Sahara reach 113 degrees F (45 degrees C) on many afternoons. It is, in other words, a gigantic natural storehouse of solar energy.

A few years ago, scientists began to calculate just how much energy the Sahara holds. They were astounded at the answer. In theory, a 35,000-sq.-mi. (90,600 sq km) chunk of the Sahara — smaller than Portugal and a little over 1% of its total area — could yield the same amount of electricity as all the world’s power plants combined. A smaller square of 6,000 sq. mi. (15,500 sq km) — about the size of Connecticut — could provide electricity for Europe’s 500 million people. “I admit I was skeptical until I did the calculations myself,” says Michael Pawlyn, director of Exploration Architecture, one of three British environmental companies comprising the Sahara Forest Project, which is testing solar plants in Oman and the United Arab Emirates. Pawlyn calls the Sahara’s potential “staggering.”

At this point, no one is proposing the creation of a solar power station the size of a small country. But a relatively well developed technology exists, which proponents say could turn the Sahara’s heat and sunlight into a major electrical source — concentrating solar power (CSP). Unlike solar panels, which convert sunlight directly into electricity, CSP utilizes mirrors to focus light on water pipes or boilers, generating superheated steam to operate the turbines of generators. Small CSP plants have produced power in California’s Mojave Desert since the 1980s. The Sahara Forest Project proposes building CSP plants below sea level (the Sahara has several such depressions) so that seawater can flow into them and be condensed into distilled water for powering turbines and washing dust off the mirrors. Wastewater would be used to irrigate areas around the stations, creating lush oases — hence the forest in the group’s name.

One country is perfect for solar energy due to its climate, South Africa. South Africa’s solar radiation output is over twice that of Europe – making it one of the highest in the world – and is the most readily accessible resource available. This immense energy resource lends itself to a number of potential uses and the country’s solar-equipment industry is growing with a number of companies in South Africa selling solar panels and other related solar energy products. There are some problems that the country faces, which have been magnified since the 2010 World Cup is taking place this summer.

For many years, South Africa has suffered from poor energy efficient housing. Low-cost housing is particularly poor for saving energy, resulting in high levels of wasted energy especially in winter. The result is harmful levels of air pollution in townships, due mainly to coal burning.

But not all is lost….

Research has shown that if low-cost housing can be fitted with solar panels then fuel savings of as much as 65% could be made. This makes solar energy for homes an environmental and money-saving success mainly because:

  • Solar energy has become more efficient.
  • Less expensive to install. It’s still more expensive than traditional power, but this will change in the not-too-distant future with fuel and utility costs rising.

When this happens, the demand is likely to go crazy which should lower the costs even more as competitors fight over the market share.

And energy saving homes can be built at the same cost as energy-wasteful houses.  Water heating accounts for a third to half of the energy use in the average South African household. This comes mainly from electricity. If solar energy replaced electricity for this then it would save the lower income households significant money, whilst saving energy, which will in turn improve the environment in which they live.

A roll-out programme of solar water heaters has started, with the focus on higher income households in Gauteng, the Western Cape and KwaZulu-Natal. This program is led by the Central Energy Fund (CEF).

Solar water heaters have many benefits both for the customer and for South Africa. The customer benefits by having a reduced electricity bill and the country benefits because less power has to be generated and so less pollution is generated.

And as solar water heaters and photovoltaic solar panels can be used both at residential and commercial buildings, with the amount of sunshine South Africa basks in, there really is no excuse for the government not pushing solar panels more aggressively.

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