Africa goes solar… (if the utilities let them, and if they find money)

Following up from my last post. Other areas of interest at the World Bank’s Energy Week conference included rural electrification.  Grid connection is notoriously poor throughout Africa.  Tanzania, for example, is around 22% depending on whom you talk to.  In addition, just because a community has a grid penetration, it doesn’t mean everyone in that community has power at their house.  Connections are expensive.  The waiting list for the utility to make the connection is long.

Often time people take it upon themselves to make their own connection.  Even if they do have power, it might not be reliable.  Kenyan Power and Lighting Company is estimated to have around 11,000 outages per month. The other option for people to address lack of (or unreliable) grid connection is to support it with solar PV or fuel based generators.  These two technologies support communities, can add capacity to the grid (if connected), and provide a potentially cheaper way to provide power to end-users (factoring in the implied costs associated with transmission) .

I spoke with more than one Minister of Energy about incorporating solar PV grid tied systems on the multi MW size to add capacity and stability to the grid.  Some of the push back comes from the utility (similar to the US) regards the need to improve the transmission lines, substation capacity and the perceived threat to their business.

I did hear Inger Anderson, the Director for African Sustainable Development, discuss power pooling, power trading, and harmonization for power traded between countries in Africa with Dan Kammen, UC Berkeley, and H.E Butare, the Minister of State Infrastructure from Rwanda.  Many countries supply power to their neighbors already. Uganda provides excess power to western Tanzania, South Africa provides power to Botswana for example.  Organizing power commodities market in Africa would be difficult but it would certainly make investment vehicles and deeper grid connections easier.  Pre-paid electricity, similar to pre-paid cell phone minutes is something that Eskom does already in South Africa, and it could easily be expanded to other communities and countries.  It would reduce some risk for the utility to connect houses and re-coup it’s investment.

Finally, the solar home system (SHS), which I am somewhat dubious of, was discussed.  Grameen Shakti is also involved in selling and financing these systems for individual use.  When asked why he thought it was more effective as a program in Bangladesh than Africa, Mr Dipal Barua said that the proximity to communities between the sales shop and end-user made the early concerns addressable.  Maintenance and the small usual start-up issues were quickly solvable.  Whereas in Africa in general, communities were so dispersed that it might take a few days to get a technician to a home to fix an error.  In addition, he suggested that Bangladesh had a history and culture with micro finance.  Small loans linked with the equipment made it easy to get SHS’s into people’s hands.

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