Is Solar Power the Answer to Africa’s Energy Woes?

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SEATTLE — Much has been made of the power of solar energy to bring electricity to developing countries around the world, especially in Africa. The number of nongovernmental organizations and startups providing solar energy solutions on the continent are countless. Solar panels on roofs that give power to households, panel installations that power streetlights, and solar-powered flashlights and lamps that allow children to do their homework after dark are all examples.

Here are some statistics to drive home the severity of Africa’s power situation: Millions are without electricity in Africa; this is a well-known fact. Somewhere between 585 and 621 million people lack power in Sub-Saharan Africa alone, while in East Africa only 23% of Kenyans, 14.8% of Tanzanians, and 10.8% of Rwandans have access to power. Ninety-three million Nigerians rely on firewood and charcoal. But there is a brutal side to all these facts as well.

The lack of access to electricity causes six thousand deaths a year, 50% of them children. Many of the deaths are caused because air in households has been polluted by the burning of wood and charcoal for cooking. Without power, doctors and clinics cannot refrigerate crucial vaccines capable of saving lives. Children cannot do homework after it gets dark. Economic development has been found to shrink two to four percent each year that a country lacks electricity or experiences power shortages.

How much do people without electricity spend on other sources of energy? One hundred and thirty-eight million households across Africa living on less than $2.50 a day spend a whopping $10 billion every year on things like charcoal, wood, kerosene and candles. Even with this huge amount of money spent, these people pay more for their energy source than those in Manhattan do for theirs. Solar power could help reduce these costs and bring electricity to those without it, as it is already doing in some places.

Is solar power the answer? Many seem to think so. And although there are a few problems and challenges that solar power faces, most of those challenges are found in larger, more complex solar installations, not in the plethora of solar flashlights and other mobile, solar-powered devices out there.

The cost of installation can sometimes be an issue, just as a lack of skilled workers to install the panels themselves can be. USAID is taking steps to improve this by paying for female solar technicians to be trained in installing, maintaining and servicing solar panels. This is needed on a broader scale, however. Another issue is financial accountability for the solar panels—if they break, it is often unclear who pays to fix them. Startup companies providing solar energy cannot fund this themselves, and at times the villages or individuals to whom the panels belong cannot afford to fix them either.

Despite these challenges, solar power has the potential to end the energy struggles and energy-related deaths across the continent of Africa. It was done in Bangladesh, where 3.5 million off-the-grid systems have been installed, a number expected to double in the coming future. The biggest hurdle that solar power faces in Africa is gaining the support, financially and technologically, of governments. With their support and encouragement, they can enable broad-scale investment that can indeed make solar power the answer to Africa’s energy woes.

Gregory Baker

Sources: APP, The Guardian, BBC, National Geographic, MGAfrica, The Energy Collective
Photo: Sun’s Eye Solar Power

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