Bright Perspectives for Solar Power in Africa?

Institut Montaigne

The difficulties involved in implementing infrastructure projects in most Sub-Saharan African countries are well-known: political risks, cost of mobilizing capital, weakness of existing electric grids, inadequate assets management capacities, insufficient training of local authorities, insufficiencies with the regulatory frameworks, lack of planning, liquidity shortages in the financial sector, financial robustness of the off-takers, etc.

While there is a general consensus that the massive and rapid deployment of power generation facilities in Africa is essential to the continent’s economic and human development, there are several ways to achieve this goal. A long term view could mean favouring the deployment of large hydropower dams, decarbonised solutions that take a long time to implement and are not necessarily suitable for all regions. Conversely, the pressing urgency may encourage decision makers to opt for easier solutions: the use of thermal power generation plants (coal, gas or diesel fired power plants) that are quicker to deploy but generate more CO2. Although complementary, these two strategies each appear unable to provide a single response to the future needs of a population that will count an additional 1.3 billion people in thirty years’ time: the first option has the disadvantage of a development phase that is too long for the state of urgency observed, the second is inadequate in both climatic and economic terms, due to the increasing prices of fossil fuels.

For almost a decade, the development of photovoltaic solar power generation technologies offers new perspectives for electrifying the African continent. The falling prices of solar panels and batteries, the exponential growth of solar energy world-wide, and various initiatives, including the Africa Renewable Energy Initiative (AREI) or Jean-Louis Borloo’s public addresses, have implied that the problem of access to energy in Africa had been resolved, or is at least in the process of being so. In fact, the truth is quite different. Today, only around ten solar power plants of more than 5 MW have been connected to the grid in the whole of Sub-Saharan Africa (excluding South Africa), four of which are in Senegal. Africa remains notably absent from the global wave of solar power plant deployment. This is a collective failure for which the underlying reasons must be analysed.

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