Access to electricity remains a major challenge for over half a billion people in sub-Saharan Africa. Power outages are common. Recently, South Africa is now experiencing load shedding, which is a euphemism for power failure. But the new trend in Kenya highlights something that is getting attention at the African Climate Summit in Nairobi — solar power that is not connected to the grid. With or without the encouragement of government policy, families and businesses are choosing off-grid solar in the face of an unreliable grid.
According to the World Bank, the number of so-called mini grids — solar systems that support a cluster of homes or businesses — has grown from 500 in Africa in 2000 to 3,000 today. Because the price of electricity has risen in Kenya due to the higher costs of fuel, some have been driven to form their own local grid using this means. Also, steel manufacturers and cooking oil factories, who form some of the biggest clients for one Nairobi-based company, have keyed into the alternative power sources reliability and lower cost despite its initial high installation capital.
Nigeria has also joined the growing trend due to similar problems.
Managing director at CP Solar, Rashmi Shah, stated that his company has installed 25 megawatts of solar systems in the past six years. He said that it is a clean source of energy and clients are able to recover their initial costs through savings within the first four years. “We are not polluting the air at all; we are not raising the temperatures; we are not affecting the climate of the Earth. So that is why more and more emphasis is coming to cleaner energy,” he told the press.
Since the majority of people in sub-Saharan Africa struggle with constant power supply, renewable energy is more reliable but its promise for the region still remains largely unmet. African nations below the Sahara have 60 percent of the world’s solar potential. According to Kenyan president, William Ruto, the nearly year-round sunshine in Africa makes us unique. Meanwhile, the situation in Nigeria is also changing. Most households have depended on petrol generators for power. But recently, the government removed petrol subsidies, prompting increased interest in solar power.
Private sector helps in promoting the alternative source of power.
Only about half of Nigerians are connected to the grid, and even for them, power cuts are common. In 2022, some tertiary institutions left the national grid and sought alternative power generation. The Nigerian government has not announced incentives to promote solar energy, such as reducing import taxes on solar equipment as demanded by dealers. However, where the government has been unhelpful, the private sector has taken the lead in promoting it by offering households and small businesses the option of paying for their solar installations over time.
An agent for Sun King, a solar power company, had commented that the problem was affordability, but now customers can pay installments over a period of 18 months. The agent also noted that the company also serves energy-hungry small businesses like those that use freezers or pump water from boreholes. After addressing the issue of high upfront costs, the model has proved to be a solution for the social problems drawn out by Nigeria energy crisis in poorly served and low-income households.
South Africa’s 2021 policy has helped companies in the country.
In the third powerhouse economy of sub-Saharan Africa, the South African government announced a new policy in 2021 that allows mining companies and large industrial operations to generate up to 100 megawatts of their own electricity, from the previous 1 megawatt. This reduced their reliance on the national grid and promoted renewable energy sources. As a result, have announced plans to generate significant amounts of renewable power in the short term. The country is also taking steps to reduce its dependence on coal-fired power. For instance, the Komati power station in Mpumalanga was decommissioned in 2022 and will be converted to clean generation with more than 150 megawatts of solar, 70 megawatts of wind, and 150 megawatts of storage batteries.
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