The sun shines on Africa

Innovations in solar technology continue to disrupt conventional thinking regarding energy planning. At a utility scale, it is the technology’s ability to bring much needed base-load power to the grid quickly that is proving to be one of the biggest advantages of this renewable energy technology. 

This is especially true in sub-Saharan Africa where the divide between energy rollout and access to energy continues to grow.

While mega projects will remain a top priority on the continent, utility-scale solar has the potential to alleviate some of the burdens associated with delivering much-needed base-load power to national grids. This includes the high costs associated with developing large hydropower, gas, coal and nuclear power plants, especially in the current global economic climate where access to finance has become far more complex than ever before.

Solar energy projects are also less demanding to execute than large hydro, nuclear, and most thermal power ventures. In South Africa, for example, they have played an invaluable role in bringing energy to the grid while work forges ahead on two large coal-fired power stations, as well as a peaking power plant.

Developments in the field continue to improve the overall efficiencies of these power stations, adding to their appeal to African energy policy-makers and their professional teams.

Here, Dinesh Buldoo, Director, Transmission & Distribution, WSP Africa, points to developments such as concentrated photo-voltaic (CPV) systems andconcentrated solar power (CSP) systems. They will also play an important role in energising remote and outlying areas that are restricted by grid access. In many instances, it would simply be unviable to connect these areas to centralised energy plants. These technologies can be deployed close to the source of demand.

Developments made in the field could represent a major leap forward for renewable energy in Africa, considering that it offers real base-load capability, overcoming the intermittent characteristics of many older technologies. However, other forms of base-load power will remain an essential component of any energy mix. This is especially the case in countries, such as South-Africa, that rely on energy-intensive industries, such as mining.

WSP has played a prominent role in bringing utility-scale solar power projects to fruition in South Africa. Under the REIPPP, we were appointed by IPP developer, BioTherm, as the LTA to Nedbank and the Industrial Development Corporation for the Konkoonsies I and Aries solar facilities.

“Our scope of work included overseeing all the technical aspects of the project, ensuring that the technical soundness of the feasibility studies and the plant designs achieve return on investment. These PV facilities which have been in operation since December 2013 are located near Pofadder and Kenhardt respectively, in the Northern Cape, and each has a capacity of 10.75MWp,” says Buldoo.

However, it is the number of other solar projects in Ethiopia, Ghana, Nigeria, Mali, Gambia and Kenya that mirror the continent’s growing interest in solar power.

While there are a host of renewable energy technologies that are being explored and developed, solar provides significant potential to light up the continent, considering the high irradiation levels there are to contend with.

“The World Sunshine Map highlights that Africa receives, on average, more hours of sunshine than any other continent on Earth, creating huge potential for solar power,” says Buldoo. However, the continent is also following international trends, in terms of decoupling buildings from national grids, with solar being a major driver of this movement.

Progressing past being a mere back-up power solution combined with complex diesel generator systems, roof-top solar projects are helping to alleviate already-constrained grid networks on the continent. Developments in the field, in countries such as South Africa and Kenya, point to a future consisting of sophisticated flexible grid networks. Here, large base-load projects are complemented by systems that bring power directly to the consumer without the need for investing in long transmission lines. However, there is still much to be done to bolster African distribution infrastructure at municipal level to the point where it is ready to receive these technologies at a larger scale.

 Yet, like its utility-scale counterparts, innovations in storage technologies and PV modules, as well as the declining cost of solar systems, has seen it become an essential part of the green building revolution on the continent. Enterprising property developers are increasingly insisting on solar power as critical components of their property assets, complementing their already-robust energy efficiency initiatives geared at mitigating their load on the grid.