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Electrifying rural Africa with solar-plus-storage

More than two-thirds of the population of sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) is still without electricity, with the figure rising to more than 85% in rural areas. According to International Energy Agency (IEA) figures quoted in a Whitehouse fact sheet on Obama’s Power Africa programme, sub-Saharan Africa will require more than US$300 billion in investment to build out the continent’s power generation and transmission systems if it is to achieve universal electricity access by 2030.

Solar power development in the continent has until now been predominantly concentrated in the North African region largely due to its export potential, but with solar projects increasingly coming online in the south, east and the west, solar energy is expected to play a major role in Africa’s future energy generation mix.

Solar potential stretches far beyond the Sahara desert as almost all of Africa’s countries receive sufficient sunlight to efficiently and economically generate solar energy, estimated at 2MWh per square meter. Despite this massive potential, the region has witnessed little progress in terms of solar power deployment due to limited government and private-player investment potential.

In rural areas of Sub-Saharan Africa, the proportion of the population without electricity is over 85% in some areas. Image: wikimedia User: BanYanTree.
Great strides

The continent is however benefiting from support from countries such as the US, which is contributing to the development of the African power industry through significant funding. It has contributed US$7 billion through the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), a large portion of which will be used to promote renewable energy technologies, including solar. The countries that will benefit from the aid include Kenya, Tanzania, Ethiopia, Ghana, Liberia and Niger. Other countries have individual plans for the promotion of solar energy, such as Senegal, which aims to support more than 30% of its rural energy requirement through solar energy. Mozambique and Zimbabwe plan to follow Senegal’s lead, and the former has invested in excess of US$15 million in solar power.

In South Africa, great strides were made through the Renewable Energy Independent Power Produced Procurement Programme (REIPPPP), which through the 3rd round has accumulated over 1500MW of PV and over 400MW of concentrated solar power

Due to the intermittent nature of solar power generation, cloud, shadows and dust can have an undesirable impact on the grid. In addition to providing benefits of smoothing intermittent PV output, energy storage can bring many other benefits such as energy backup, energy arbitrage or energy supply.

There is also a lot of potential in terms of off-grid solar, which unlike grid interactive systems cannot count on the support of a strong grid and therefore the intermittency effect is amplified. In some cases, connecting to weaker grids can also be problematic especially given the low inertia of this type of generation.

Energy storage has the potential to transform electricity grids across Africa and help to bring reliable power to millions of people across the continent.  To this end, S&C Electric is working with a host of companies to explore energy storage projects across Africa. The continent has the opportunity to replicate storage and microgrid projects that have been installed in other parts of the world.

Only a small fraction of the rich potential for solar development in Africa has been realised. Image: Azimuth Power.
Lessons from jail

S&C was the project lead in upgrading Santa Rita Jail near San Francisco, one of the United States’ largest correctional facilities, to a fully functioning micro-grid using onsite generation. This micro-grid system allows the facility to operate without a connection to the local utility grid. Their onsite power sources include diesel generators, fuel cells, lithium-ion batteries, and renewable resources, such as a 500-kW solar array and microturbines.   

Projects like Santa Rita could be replicated in Africa to bring secure power to millions and help the social, economic and environmental transformation of communities. Storage solutions could also be used to enhance the efficiency of traditional diesel generators or be implemented as a direct low carbon replacement.

Energy storage will be a key component in transforming Africa’s power networks and to support its continued economic growth. However, there is still a large knowledge gap concerning energy storage in Africa. If energy storage solutions are to be widely installed, efforts should be made to educate the younger generation of engineers on the benefits of implementing storage. Achieving this will allow for a better understanding of the applications that energy storage can support within the electricity network and the return on investment that projects can yield. Most importantly, energy storage can provide access to safe reliable electricity to millions of people in Africa.

S&C Electric will be participating in Solar & Off-Grid Renewables West Africa, a two-day event in Accra, Ghana taking place on 21-22 April 2015 and hosted by Solar Media, publisher of PV Tech Storage.

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