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Sunshine Over Blackouts: Solar Energy and the Path to Development in Sub-Saharan Africa

Sunshine Over Blackouts: Solar Energy and the Path to Development in Sub-Saharan Africa

Solar Energy and the Path to Development in Sub-Saharan Africa - Afrocritik

If properly utilised, many analysts believe that solar energy can widen electricity access in such a way that traditional grids cannot.

By Michael Akuchie 

In September 2023, Nigeria experienced a nationwide blackout due to a grid collapse, following a fire explosion that affected two plants in the country. Nigeria, like several countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, experiences power blackouts such as this to varying extents. In some cases, power distribution is lower than user consumption – where electricity distribution companies implement a system called load shedding to reduce power supply for certain periods – and in other instances, there is low power generation. In South Africa, for example, load shedding has become a problematic issue, as certain regions are often without power for many hours. In Nigeria, electricity generation includes the use of hydropower, and periods of low rainfall may negatively impact electricity generation. 

Statista, an online data analysis platform, provides more context for this situation. Its findings show that as of 2021, 597 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa were without access to power. Based on this finding, five out of ten persons in the region live without electricity. Rural communities in the region face a worse fate, and according to Statista, 70% of those living in rural areas lack access to power. A real-life example is Okitipupa, a community in southwestern Nigeria, which has been without electricity for over 13 years. 

This trend has given rise to the increased use of petrol generators. In Nigeria, for example, a generator is a necessity. However, petrol generators as a long-term cure for energy deficits also pose certain challenges:  not only are they a huge noise polluter, but their usage is detrimental to the environment through carbon monoxide emission which, according to the California Air Resources Board, indirectly contributes to climate change. Beyond the environment, carbon monoxide can be detrimental to human health. Fatigue, headaches, and dizziness are some of the most common effects of this poisonous gas. Besides, the cost of petroleum has steadily increased over time. The removal of subsidies on the product has seen citizens pay more for fuel, and with high inflation and reduced purchasing power, it has become more difficult to use a generator. 

(Read also: Much Ado About the Politics of Fuel Subsidy Removal in Nigeria)

In light of climate change and the vast gap in electricity access across Sub-Saharan Africa, the region has been encouraged to adopt solar energy. A World Economic Forum article states that Africa’s solar energy potential is “immense” and can greatly widen access to affordable and reliable power. Solar energy refers to the radiation from the sun harnessed to generate mass amounts of electricity. When sunlight hits a solar panel, the panel’s photovoltaic (PV) cells absorb the light. This then creates a kind of electric current – direct current (DC). An inverter then converts the DC into alternating current (AC) which homeowners use to power appliances. 

Solar energy is finding its footing in Africa, albeit slowly. Last year, Ghana launched the country’s first hydro-solar hybrid power generating system as part of efforts to diversify the country’s grid. The plant aims to lower the country’s greenhouse gas emissions by 250,000 tons annually. Early this year, former Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari commissioned a 10 megawatts solar farm (a portion of land that contains a large number of solar panels that absorb sunlight and convert it into electricity) project in the northwestern state of Kano in a bid to accelerate the country’s transition to green energy. 

Solar farm - Afrocritik
Solar farm | Source: Perch Energy

If properly utilised, many analysts believe that solar energy can widen electricity access in such a way that traditional grids cannot. Solar energy can greatly benefit Sub-Saharan Africa, with economic development and increased electricity access among the primary dividends. For example, the cost of business operations will be significantly reduced. Picture the neighbourhood barbershop operating at full capacity through a solar mini-grid, or imagine schoolchildren not having to learn in hot conditions thanks to the solar panels on their roofs to power the fans in their classroom. With better learning conditions, schoolchildren have a better opportunity to improve their academic performance. 

Constant electricity access can also aid the developmental efforts of any country and region. More foreign companies will be eager to set up local factories and employ local labour, thereby reducing the unemployment rate of that area. It will also encourage private investors to support the country’s economy which will in turn increase the gross domestic product (GDP) generated.  

(Read also – How Technology is Redefining the Work Culture in Africa

As a renewable and green energy source, solar energy can potentially reduce the effects of climate change: solar technologies neither pollute the atmosphere nor produce greenhouse gases while in use. Sub-Saharan Africa has higher solar radiation intensity, owing to being situated in tropical and subtropical climate zones, which makes the region the perfect candidate for solar energy adoption. 

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While these are true, certain factors stand in the way of its mass adoption. Firstly, setting up mini-solar grids in residential areas is no easy feat, due to the high upfront costs. Limited financing options complicate the matter, forcing most solar adopters to pay out of pocket. Unfortunately, local currency devaluation coupled with high inflation makes it quite difficult to gather the needed funds for such projects. 

Solar panels 2
Solar panels | Source: Yale E360

There are little to no tax incentives for solar energy projects. The scarcity of such incentives is a major reason behind the slow adoption of electric vehicles (EVs) in this region. Like EVs, solar power is expensive, especially in the initial phase. If these subsidies were readily available, it would incentivise individuals to adopt these power options. For example, when a homeowner installs solar panels on their roof, they could be given a tax credit of up to 30% to cover installation costs. Certain regions in Asia, Europe, and the United States have implemented tax incentives and other “climate-centric” policies to encourage greener solutions such as solar energy. 

With global warming becoming increasingly prevalent and the vast economic benefits for businesses and individuals, switching to renewable energy sources is crucial. Making solar power affordable for everyone, especially those living in rural communities, is a great start. Providing people with diverse financing options to handle the steep upfront costs of installing mini-grids is another fine step towards encouraging adoption. 

Michael Akuchie is a tech journalist with four years of experience covering cybersecurity, AI, automotive trends, and startups. He reads human-angle stories in his spare time. He’s on X (fka Twitter) as @Michael_Akuchie & michael_akuchie on Instagram.

Cover Photo: Zbynek Burival on Unsplash


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