Globally, approximately 1.4 billion people have no access to electricity, with over 85% living in rural areas. Amongst this populace, a majority of them live in Sub-Saharan Africa. Currently, over 500 million people in Africa lack access to electricity, which is approximately 35.7% of the global populace with no access to electricity. Ideally, less than one in five African homesteads had a connection to the power grid by 2012, and despite a diffident increase in rural electrification in Sub-Saharan Africa from 32% in 2010 to 35% in 2012, the electrification rate is still rather sluggish, especially compared to the population growth rate. Despite all of these discouraging statistics, Africa has a great limelight in achieving total or near total electrification, including its rural and remote regions, thanks to its huge capabilities in harnessing renewable energy resources. The utilization of renewable energy sources in Africa such as biomass and solar dates back to more than 20 years ago, but it is not until recently that some of the African states have started embracing the use of solar energy on a large/industrial scale. This article describes the evolution process of solar energy in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Africa is generally known as “the Continent in the Sun” due to the vast solar resources it holds. The World Sunshine Map shows that Africa receives significantly more hours of sunshine per annum than any other location on earth, thanks to most of the sunniest locations being located in Africa. Despite the adoption of solar energy in Africa’s energy sector still being quite low in the 21st century, the evolution of solar energy in the continent is still advancing and increasingly gaining momentum alongside the adoption of other key sources of renewable energy such as wind and geothermal power.

With over 4,300 sunshine hours received in Africa (about 97% of the total possible amount of sunshine receivable), various African states have been working tirelessly to harness this power, adding it to their national grids. Here, we will look into solar energy evolution in especially in Sub-Saharan Africa with key emphasis on some of the states that are continually investing in solar energy infrastructure over the last two decades. The last decade and a half mark the most significant adoption rates of solar energy harnessing on an industrial scale in various nations across the continent. Also, a decline in solar equipment cost especially over the past decade has led to significant increases in investment and installation of solar power plants across Africa.

The top harvester of solar energy in Africa is undoubtedly South Africa. However, its evolution only dates back to 2011, marked by the launch of the Renewable Energy Independent Power Producers Program (REIPPP). The bidding program launched by the South African government was aimed at tackling the nation’s chronic power shortages. Currently, South Africa targets to have an installed capacity in solar power of 8,400 MW by 2030, enough to power about 1.5 million households. Since 2011, the nation has installed about 1,360 MW of solar power, while 1,530 is currently under construction. Of this total (i.e., 2890 MW), 600MW of solar energy capacity is attributed to Concentrated Solar Power (CSP).

Coming closely behind South Africa is the Kingdom of Morocco. In regard to evolution of solar power, Morocco has made major strides in realizing its solar energy capabilities, with over 3,000 hours of solar insolation per annum, with some regions in the desert receiving approximately 3,600 hours of sunshine per year. The installation of industrial-scale solar energy infrastructure in Morocco began in 2009, aimed at installing a total of 2,000 MW by 2020 at a cost of $9 billion. By 2016, the state had realized over 180 MW of commissioned solar power capacity, with an additional 350 MW currently under development. Tainted as one of the world’s biggest solar power projects, Morocco embraces various solar technologies, starting off with basic solar panels about a decade ago to the current CSP, photovoltaics, and parabolic trough technologies. Morocco aims at being a dominant energy exporter to Europe by 2030.

Algeria, Ghana, and Egypt are other African states that have helped shape the solar evolution story in Africa. As part of its ambitious 22-Gigawatt (GW) goal of renewable energy production by 2030, Algeria has been developing its solar power generation capacity over the past 7 years, currently at 290 MW of installed capacity plus another 70 MW under development. The West African nation, Ghana, aims at developing solar energy capacity to at least 10% of all energy needs in the nation. By so doing, the state has been developing various solar generation projects over the past decade, including the Nzema project, with an installed capacity of 275 MW, ranked as the largest solar photovoltaic (PV) plant in the continent. But, Egypt also shapes the solar energy evolution story in Africa, with over 100 MW of PV capacity and 20 MW of CSP capacity developed over the last 12 years, and an ambitious target of attaining 2,650 MW of installed capacity by 2020, plus an additional projected goal of 1 GW of PV capacity in the near future.

While the highlighted African nations feature among the top in commissioned solar power generation facilities over the past couple of decades on an industrial scale, numerous other nations are also part of Africa’s solar evolution story. For example, Kenya ranks as a world leader in regard to the number of installed solar power systems per capita over the last decade. Ideally, significant number of Kenyan families have switched to solar power rather than opting for the more expensive installation costs of connection to the national power grid. Additionally, there are a number of solar distributors spread across the nation such as M-Kopa solar which allows for affordable pay-as-you-go microfinance options. Such initiatives that have established the uptake of solar power at household levels over the past 12 years alongside subsidized solar power products have helped shape the incremental adoption of solar energy in countries such as Kenya and across Africa in general. From an industrial scale, Kenya is also installing more solar power generation capacity, with the flagship 54 MW Garissa power plant commissioned on November 2018 projected to produce an estimated 76,470-megawatt hours (MWh) per annum. This will power an additional 625,000 homes; thus, significantly contributing to the nation’s robust rural electrification programme.

In conclusion, while the story of solar energy evolution in Africa is not so rich with major infrastructural advances mostly beginning at the turn of the millennium, Africa at large is making major strides in adopting and installing solar energy infrastructure; thus, harnessing the vast renewable resources at their disposal. Although it is quite capital intensive at the start, harnessing solar energy could provide the needed breakthrough in Africa’s energy needs; therefore, contributing to the continent’s development agendas. Ideally, the highlighted nations are only amongst the top states that are currently shaping the evolution of solar energy adoption as a key renewable energy source in Africa; the adoption of solar energy is more widespread across African nations, albeit at smaller scales. 

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