Solar power: the fix for Africa's frustration with the grid?

As solar power becomes more affordable and efficient, it could spread in Africa, much in the way cell phones took over without widespread infrastructure, writes guest blogger Alex Thurston.

By , Guest blogger

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    An Indian worker works amid installed solar panels atop the Narmada canal at Chandrasan village, about 25 miles from Ahmadabad, India, Feb. 16. The western Indian state of Gujarat is all set to become the first state in the country to generate solar power through panels mounted on a water body.
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• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, www.sahelblog.wordpress.com. The views expressed are the author's own.

This is another post where I get myself into trouble by venturing into a new area – infrastructure, in this case – but this post from the environmentalist blog Treehugger caught my eye:

In Uttar Pradesh, one of India’s poorest states, a pair of US-born entrepreneurs is creating a new model for energy delivery to villages far from the grid. The founders of Mera Gao Power build and operate solar-powered micro grids to provide low-cost lighting and mobile phone charging to village houses, giving many rural people access to both light and power for the first time in their lives.

[...]

Mera Gao Power’s low energy design calls for just four solar panels for each system, which are sufficient to supply a village of 100 households with both light and mobile charging. And because most light is used at night, but generated during the day, banks of four batteries are used to store up to two days of power are also installed near the panels. Power is then distributed from the batteries to the other households in the village.

“Micro” strikes me as the key word in that passage.

Recommended: Think you know Africa? Take our geography quiz.

Think you know Africa? Take our geography quiz.

If India, why not Africa?

The idea of using solar power in the global South generally – and Africa specifically – is not new. The UN was talking about it, and funding it, by the early 1990s:

Electrifying rural areas poses unique challenges for African governments. Remote and scattered, rural homes, unlike homes in urban areas, are costly and often impractical to connect to the grid. Under the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (NEPAD), countries are seeking innovative alternatives to give rural families efficient means to cook their food and light their homes. Stand-alone sources of energy, such as solar, wind and mini-hydro generators, can help fill the gap.

[...]

In the early 1990s, numerous villages turned to solar power in parts of Africa where one might least expect to stumble upon an oasis of lights shimmering in the pitch-black night. Perhaps the most ambitious project of this nature, and one that is often cited, is a Zimbabwean project supported by UNDP through the Global Environment Facility (GEF). The initiative, jointly funded by GEF ($7 mn) and Zimbabwe ($400,000), installed some 9,000 solar power systems throughout the country in a bid to improve living standards, but also to curtail land degradation and pollution.

Such efforts have continued. And here’s a recent profile of a private company, SolarNexus, that is attempting to spread solar in Africa by selling a “contained system of solar power generation that can be installed relatively quickly and easily.”

The idea of solar power generation becoming more efficient and affordable, and solar panels become smaller and easier for individuals or small communities to own and operate, makes me think immediately of the rapid spread of cell phones in Africa, a spread that occurred without (in many countries) a widespread landline infrastructure in place. Similarly, the trajectory of electrification in India, Africa, and elsewhere is not necessarily following that of the US or Europe.

I am neither a scientist nor an engineer and thus I am in no position to evaluate how solar stacks up against other power sources at present. But from a political and societal standpoint it seems to me that many people who lack reliable electricity and rely instead on intermittent government power or gasoline-powered home generators, as well as people who don’t have electricity at all, would switch to solar if the equipment was cheap, available, and effective.

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Finally, solar’s growth could have interesting effects on relationships between citizens and governments in countries like Nigeria and Senegal, where spotty power is a frequent source of popular anger. Cheap solar could assuage that anger, or it could – especially if solar equipment is provided primarily by private companies – simply reinforce a sense that governments are impotent and corrupt.

Alex Thurston is a PhD student studying Islam in Africa at Northwestern University and blogs at Sahel Blog.

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