Small-Scale Solar Is ‘Leapfrogging’ Limited Electric Grids in Africa and Asia

Seventy million people in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa are projected to power their homes with small-scale photovoltaic systems by 2022.

A surge in cheap solar power has been a boon to the developing world, where villages in Asia and Africa still lack regular access to light and power.

About 1.2 billion people in the developing world still live without electricity. About 600 million of those are in sub-Saharan Africa, a continent dominated by European colonial powers for most of the last century. Hundreds of millions more lack ready access to power and the often life-saving advantages it provides. But building and connecting power plants is a multi-billion-dollar endeavor that can stretch the finances of poor countries and take years to complete.

“It would cost $800 billion to electrify Africa in a traditional way — money that doesn't exist,” Russell Sturm, who runs global energy access programs at the International Finance Corporation, a member of the World Bank Group, told Seeker. “I can't imagine it coming to the table, and the institutions aren't in place to even absorb that kind of money and build a system that functions.”

But individual solar installations or small-scale “micro-grids” can leapfrog over industrial-scale power projects the same way mobile networks gave millions of people access to communications faster than many countries could string telephone wires.

‘I think what you see in Africa, primarily in the rural space, is really a revolution in distributed solar.’

And it just so happens a global boom in solar energy is well under way. Though still a small share of the world’s electric generation, the world added 74 billion watts of solar in 2016 — an amount comparable to the annual output of Turkey, according to a new report from the International Energy Agency. And that boom is expected to power the homes of 70 million people in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa with small-scale photovoltaic systems by 2022, that UN agency forecasts.

While the wattage involved is comparatively small, “The social impact is very high,” Paolo Frankl, the head of the IEA’s renewable energy arm, told reporters. Not only could millions soon have electricity in their homes for the first time, but others can replace “expensive and polluting” diesel-powered generators, he said.

“It’s a combination of technology progress and new business models,” Frankl said. “The off-grid PV capacity in Africa and developing Asia triples in this respect.”

As with the mobile phone industry, the technology is cheaper and more widely available every year. And new forms of financing have allowed people to afford the up-front costs of installing a system, paying for their panels as they go, said Michael Westphal, who works on clean-energy and sustainable city issues at the World Resources Institute.

“I think what you see in Africa, primarily in the rural space, is really a revolution in distributed solar,” Westphal told Seeker. “Particularly in East Africa, you’re really seeing it take off.”

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In Tanzania, for example, the national grid supplies power to less than 20 percent of the population, according to a new WRI report. Other parts of the country are served by more than 100 “mini-grids” connected to oil-burning or hydroelectric power plants. But those sources combined reach about a quarter of Tanzanian homes, while another 8 percent now get power from solar systems.

In some West African countries, as little as 15 percent of the population has access to power, Sturm said. But cheap solar and low-cost, highly efficient LED lights, paired with rechargeable lithium batteries, have made it possible for people to buy solar-powered devices that provide energy “in affordable increments” – enough at first for light and charging phones, then fans, then devices like radios or televisions.

And that expanded access to power has opened the door to Africa as a consumer market, Sturm said.

“This isn't just about exploitation by multinational companies,” he said. “What this is about is aspirational people who desire shampoo, they desire telephones, they desire entertainment. They desire light, they desire their kid’s ability to study at night without breathing in smoke.”

Westphal said solar panels have been going up in mostly rural villages, but there’s also a big need for power in Africa’s growing cities. Many of those now living there have settled in makeshift shantytowns that governments are hesitant to legitimize by extending services like electricity.

“We don’t say distributed renewables are the sole answer. We say they complement the grid-connection model,” Westphal said. “But clearly the grid connection model cannot do it alone.”

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In India, where about a fifth of its 1.2 billion people still lack electricity, the government hopes to get its entire population plugged in by 2022, the IEA reported. Bangladesh is shooting for 2021 to electrify the remaining third of its population. Small home solar systems are a big part of those projects, with the IEA forecasting up to 11 gigawatts of distributed solar installed in India by 2022.

Overall, the IEA found solar and wind power made up more than two-thirds of the net new generating capacity installed in 2016. Renewable sources, including large hydroelectric dams, made up about 24 percent of the world’s output — second only to coal, which they’re expected to eclipse coal by the middle of the next decade.

But solar has been “the real star” in that boom, Frankl said. Most of its growth has involved utility-scale projects, but about 40 percent of it involves small systems to power homes and businesses, he said.

The boom is centered in China, where massive investments in renewable energy have sent prices of photovoltaic panels plunging worldwide. But the companies that are wiring homes in cities from Dar es Salaam to Dakar are overwhelmingly local, and lenders are increasingly willing to invest in them, Westphal said.

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Now what’s needed are government policies that support that boom, such as ending subsidies for fossil fuels and enacting feed-in tariffs and net metering for communities that are connected to the grid, he said. Leaders and international development institutions still tend to focus on centralized power systems. But Westphal said the IEA tends to be conservative in its forecasts, “and I’m sure they’re underestimating what will happen.”

“It’s very promising. It’s very hopeful,” he said. “But there’s still a large challenge.”

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