Solar Energy to Light up Africa?

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Africa is not referred to as the “Dark Continent” for nothing.

According to the World Bank’s Africa Energy Unit (AFTEG), for most of Africa’s population the availability of reliable and inexpensive electricity remains inaccessible and unaffordable, and AFTEG estimates that of Africa’s 54 nations, 25 countries face an energy crisis. The African continent is well endowed with nascent energy resources but most remain untapped. Solutions include boosting cross-border power trade, improving existing utility companies and improving wide-scale access to electricity.

Looking to ameliorate these conditions, noting that while the proportion of Africans living on less than $1.25 a day fell from 58 percent in 1996 to 50 percent in the first quarter of 2009, the World Bank has noted, “Africa is well endowed both with fossil fuels: oil, gas and coal, and renewable resources: hydro-power and geothermal in particular. Coal and hydro present particular opportunities and risks. Both deliver power at amongst the lowest-cost per unit of all energy sources when exploited at scale, though rising oil prices have increased the relative attractiveness of both. Yet both face environmental challenges. Coal has a carbon emissions handicap, although Sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) has the lowest per capita emissions of all regions, contributing less than 3 percent of global carbon dioxide output.

Similarly, hydro projects, while being low carbon, have faced extensive scrutiny for their environmental impact.

Addressing the situation of African energy deficits in comprehensible terms the World Bank recently noted, “There is (in Africa) just enough electricity generated now to power one light bulb per person 3 hours a day.”

The problem is real and growing – experts estimate that unless stronger commitments are made to reverse current trends, half the population in sub-Saharan Africa will still be without electricity by 2030, nearly two decades from now. According to a recent report produced by the UN Environment Program, the power sector in Africa needs to install an estimated 7,000 megawatts of new generation capacity each year, with the report arguing that much of that can come from Africa’s wealth of untapped, domestic renewable resources.

The disparity of electrical usage across the continent is severe, with South Africa, Africa’s most economically advanced society,  using, 4,809 kilowatt hours per person annually, while the rate in Ethiopia sees its citizens using a paltry 38.4 kilowatt hours per person. Using a comprehensible yardstick, the monthly consumption of a household using just three 60-watt light bulbs for five hours per day is 28 kilowatt hours.

Now, under a United Nations-backed initiative to fight poverty, “thinking small,” Mauritius-based solar energy company ToughStuff, will expand access to low-cost, durable solar panels and solar battery packs to low-income communities in Burundi, Cote d’Ivoire, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Ethiopia, Malawi, Mali, Mozambique, South Sudan, Zambia and Zimbabwe.

ToughStuff, an international social enterprise founded by English and Dutch entrepreneurs, last year was announced as a Tech Awards Laureate 2010 for its work providing clean, affordable energy to the world’s poorest people. The company, which only began operations in mid-2009, has already sold more than 100,000 solar power kits benefiting 380,000 low-income consumers in Eastern and Southern Africa.

But the company’s future seems as bright as the sun itself. The ToughStuff outreach program is part of the UN’s Development Program (UNDP) Business Call to Action (BCtA) global initiative, which encourages private sector efforts to develop inclusive business models that can have both commercial success and a positive impact in development, in this case, providing local, stand-alone energy options.

BCtA program manager Susan Chaffin said, “Companies like ToughStuff invest in communities by providing cleaner, healthier energy options through core business operations. This commitment will help to boost development and improve social equity in a sustainable way that is good for the environment and good for business.”

A major part of the attractiveness of the ToughStuff outreach program is that, instead of waiting for a grid to come to a town or village, solar energy can be swiftly deployed in remote areas as its distributed generation helps to reduce the risk of massive power outages and resulting reliance on expensive diesel power, which currently can cost up to five percent of a country’s annual gross domestic product (GDP), a problem that afflicts 30 of the 48 countries in sub-Saharan Africa.

The United Nations has designated 2012 the International Year of Sustainable Energy for All, which will be officially launched in Africa later this month.

Rather than grandiose, billion dollar hydroelectric and conventional power plant schemes, ToughStuff and their UN compatriots seem to have their finger on the pulse of how to deliver inexpensive electricity to rural Africans who would be grateful for power to run a well – or a light bulb.

As a “quality of life” issue for some of the world’s most disadvantaged people, one can only wish ToughStuff every success.

By. John C.K. Daly of Oilprice.com

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